Tampa's long and ambitious effort to redevelop the west bank of the Hillsborough River begins in earnest next week, and the public has a chance to shape the look of this neighborhood from the very start. A meeting Tuesday marks the first step in remaking Riverfront Park, a rambling open space whose sweeping views of downtown should make it a magnet for bringing new vitality, residents and businesses to the city center.
The meeting at Blake High School will be the first of many by the city to gather input on a new design for Riverfront. The 23-acre park is the largest open public space on the downtown waterfront, but it is pinched in by a poor design, a fragmented array of ball courts and the usual neglect that afflicts older parks on the fringe of downtown areas. It has been out of sight and mind for years as Tampa focused on downtown's east end.
The city intends to use the redesign as the first major stake in remaking the West River area, a community of older homes and decrepit public housing from the riverbank west and north. In that sense, the remake is larger than merely cleaning up and plopping down new amenities at the park. The Riverfront project could lead the way for tens of millions of dollars in new public and private investment in the West River area over the next several years. That's why it's critical to get the park's redesign right.
Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn has a good idea to reroute a nearby street along I-275, which could expand the park's footprint by 7 acres. That extra land would enable the city to update the basketball and tennis courts without spoiling natural areas of the park now enjoyed for walking, picnicking and other passive uses. Maintaining that balance is key if the city hopes to develop Riverfront both as a front yard for urban residents and as a natural oasis for people to gather and relax.
Marrying Riverfront's dual mission, though, is different from cramming the park with needless venues, visual clutter and design elements that are out of place with urban settings and the historic feel of West Tampa. That's where these community meetings should play a critical role. Residents should drive the new design, not the consultants. The city should recognize Riverfront is not a spillover for its sister park, Curtis Hixon, across the river. While some programming might be appropriate, Riverfront should be genuinely accessible. The challenge is not creating some new experience with a park that generations have enjoyed but broadening its appeal by making it more secure, user-friendly and visible.
The new Riverfront could play a key part in the redevelopment of hundreds of acres throughout West Tampa. And it could anchor a new ribbon of green space on the river's west bank, opening up waterfront corridors into West Tampa and old neighborhoods to the north for the first time in decades. The city was right to put this project at the leading edge of a broader redevelopment effort. Now it's the public turn to help make sure the city gets its right.