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Carlton: Would you pay $35 million for a park?

Tampa’s 23-acre Julian B. Lane Riverfront Park is in line for a $35.5 million makeover. [City of Tampa rendering]

Tampa’s 23-acre Julian B. Lane Riverfront Park is in line for a $35.5 million makeover. [City of Tampa rendering]

Shoot down a tax for transportation, if you must. Refuse to pay a taxpayer dime for some fancy new sports stadium, fine.

But it's hard to argue against a park.

This is especially true since downtown Tampa is finally getting parks right after those dismal years of sad, patchy stretches of grass with a waterfront hidden in there somewhere, and people not much interested in being there even in daylight.

Now the town's just showing off. These days, Tampa's parks teem with residents splashing in fountains and enjoying the river for its boats, surfacing turtles and, as I witnessed last weekend, manatees frolicking in a flowing spring (rented, I strongly suspect, from the nearby Lowry Park Zoo as ambience).

So, a question: How much is too much to pay for a park?

Thursday, the Tampa City Council will consider Mayor Bob Buckhorn's plans for "the biggest park project we've ever undertaken" — $35.5 million for a now sadly under-used but oh-so-promising 23 acres sprawled on the west side of the river across from the high-rises of downtown.

We're not just talking about adding a few amenities and opening up water views by razing the park's odd man-made hills (or "alien space mounds," as the mayor calls them, which does not sound like a compliment).

At Julian B. Lane Riverfront Park, built in the 1970s and named for a previous mayor, we're talking transformation: a great lawn for events, a bustling riverfront with a boathouse, community room and deck, a promenade and facilities for basketball, tennis, soccer and football with bleachers. All of which could open next year.

So about that $35.5 million — $15 million of which would come from the $20 million Tampa got from the BP oil spill settlement:

Council member Lisa Montelione: "Yeah, that's way too much." Harry Cohen, whose South Tampa constituency has not been quiet about wanting fixes for flooding: "It's a lot of money and I'm taking my time making a decision. I want to hear what the public has to say and what the other council members have to say."

Council elder statesman Charlie Miranda: "I've never voted against any park in my life. The only drawback I see is that it is $35 million."

Funny, though, how politics can make strange bedfellows. Council member Frank Reddick, who represents some of the city's poorest neighborhoods and has clashed with the mayor more than once, is with Buckhorn on this one because of all it could be for the community around it. (The mayor "will probably be shocked himself," Reddick says.)

Here's why paying for this park will probably pass, and probably should. Two words: West Tampa.

The mayor envisions a thriving West River neighborhood, but to old-timers, it will always be West Tampa. The land — all those valuable park acres smack in the middle of a city — lies at the edge of the historic and hardscrabble Hispanic community that has seen its share of blight. And which has not gotten the same care and maintenance as some wealthier parts of town.

"It's about time we spend some money in West Tampa," says council member Yvonne Yolie Capin. Guido Maniscalco and Mike Suarez say they're in, too. "A hefty price tag," says Suarez, "but we have not put this much money into Old West Tampa in I don't know how many years."

Those other city parks, once neglected and now thriving, prove this much: If you build it, they will come, even if it's on the other side of the river.

Contact Sue Carlton at carlton@tampabay.com.

Carlton: Would you pay $35 million for a park? 05/17/16 [Last modified: Tuesday, May 17, 2016 8:13pm]
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