Tampa is moving closer to making the Hillsborough River its downtown focal point with the hiring of a firm to redesign Riverfront Park. The park, on the western bank of the river opposite from downtown, is a rambling and underused oasis with sweeping views of the city center. The challenge is to preserve the quiet nature of Riverfront while also using its location and beauty to expand the appeal of the urban core.
The city last week hired a Denver design firm, Civitas, to begin planning an $8 million remake of the 23-acre park. That large amount of money will be well spent if the park's redesign holds up for decades, and if it proves to draw — as hoped — new residential and commercial development on the west side of the river that links to West Tampa. But the money and the mission make it all the more important for the city to get the redesign right from the start. That begins with embracing Riverfront's already considerable natural attributes and refusing to saddle the park with outsized ambitions more appropriate for larger and suburban green spaces.
Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn has been careful not to sketch out any concrete plans, and the consultants are seeking public input. Buckhorn said, though, that he wants to remove the earthen berms in the park that visually separate the ball fields and tennis courts from the river. He also wants to reroute a nearby street to connect the park with public land along I-275, which could increase the park's usable space another 7 acres. These are good ideas that would open sight lines to the river and maximize the available land. On that score, the city should bunch the tennis and basketball courts, which are both popular, along the entrance at North Boulevard, which would free up waterfront views and improve security.
The park accommodates active and passive uses now, and the redesign should reflect the same sense of balance. Tampa has had a tendency to clog its parks with sculptures, markers and other visual clutter that detracts from the natural environment. This redesign should avoid that trap. And it shouldn't commercialize the park experience by trying to attract events that overwhelm the space. Riverfront has more of a neighborhood mission than its sister park on the opposite bank of the river, Curtis Hixon. The two should complement each other, not compete. The city is starting out on an inclusive note, and it is exciting to imagine the impact to downtown of opening up this wonderful park.