The Tampa City Council will make a decision Thursday that will help shape downtown for better or worse over the next 50 years. At issue is whether to cram a 400-foot-tall apartment tower on a slice of land on the downtown riverfront, gobbling up precious public space, blocking views to the water and overpowering the cultural arts district with a building grossly out of scale. This would be a mistake that would haunt downtown for generations, and council members should reject the proposal and urge the developers to look for a more appropriate site.
It never should have come to this. The council was fully aware of the developer's plans when it agreed in January to sell a 1-acre patch between the Straz Center for the Performing Arts and the downtown library for a 36-story tower. That land is now occupied by an intersection and flower beds on the eastern bank of the Hillsborough River. Reacting to mounting concerns, the council postponed a decision in May on whether to clear the way for the tower by allowing it to be three times the city's 120-foot height limit. That variance request and four others go back to council Thursday.
The project doesn't belong in the cultural arts district for the same reason that no towers are there now. For years, the city's guiding ethos has been to locate high-rises along Ashley Drive or toward the pedestrian Franklin Street retail district. The arts and waterfront districts have been set aside as open, public spaces, with protections that preserve the view corridors to the river from the interior streets. Turning urban design on its head is bad enough. But this tower would dwarf its entire surroundings. It would stand more than three times as tall as the Straz and nearly seven times as tall as the adjacent library and Poe garage.
Making downtown a mish-mash is one thing. But this tower would break the flow of the arts district. Say goodbye to any effort to upgrade the library — or better yet, to use the library land as bait to relocate the facility to a more functional and central location downtown. The Straz would be trading one traffic headache for another, when all the city needs to do is realign the streets as it should have done years ago. No wonder nearly as many Straz trustees voted against the tower or abstained (30) as the number (32) who voted to support it.
The city gains nothing from making a few million bucks for the property when it has spent tens of million of tax dollars in recent years to reverse the past mistakes of building on the river. And approving the tower means one of two things: It becomes either an isolated outpost in the arts district or a precedent that brings more outsized buildings to the waterfront. The impact of the tower must be considered over the lifespan of the building. The council should reject the rezoning request and keep the waterfront open to the public.