The plan to build a 36-story apartment tower on a patch of downtown Tampa riverfront goes Monday to the board of trustees of the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts. This is an opportunity for civic leaders to speak clearly about why this project would be bad for the Straz, bad for the library next door, bad for downtown and bad for the public.
Developers want to build 380 apartments and retail space on a sliver of land overlooking the Hillsborough River that's now occupied by an intersection and flower beds. The Tampa City Council must approve several variances, the most significant of which would allow the tower to be three times as tall as the 120-foot height limit downtown. The council postponed consideration in May over concerns about the tower's impact to the Straz, area traffic and access to the river. The Straz board does not have veto power, but its trustees are major political and civic players, and its position will carry great weight when the council reconsiders the project in August.
Up till now, attention has focused on whether the tower would force the removal of two skywalks that lead from the Poe garage to the library and the Straz. The developers tweaked their plans to keep the elevated walkways — but that is a hollow victory, because the city simply got back what it already has. And the walkways were never the big concern, anyway.
The tower would isolate the Straz from the remainder of the arts district, including Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park, walling off sight lines to the river and creating an unwelcome feel in the very area the city has spent tens of millions of tax dollars to foster as open, public space. While the money generated from selling the traffic median would help redesign the streets, having a tower plunked down between the garage and Straz's arrivals court would simply exchange one traffic problem for another.
Trustees need to imagine what this impact would mean over the next 40 or 50 years. What is the logic of improving the arrivals area only to clog the site for the foreseeable future with a tower that overwhelms the Straz? And the project all but dooms the main library next door from modernizing and playing a more vibrant role as a destination in the arts district. This is too high a price to pay for reconfiguring Tyler and Cass streets for two-way traffic. That job is a safety imperative that the city has an obligation to address anyway.
There is no easy compromise, since the developers are trying to jam a square peg into a round hole. But as trustees of a city-owned performing arts center, members of the Straz board have a public responsibility to think through the implications of this project over the long term. A tower that hems in the Straz and the library, that looms over the river and that further restricts public space in the arts district — while adding vehicular traffic to the same overbuilt area — works against everything the city has achieved over the past decade to make downtown more livable. The Straz board should add its voice in opposing a project that needs to find a new location.