Tampa's downtown has grown up in the last few years. New condos, museums and parks line the Hillsborough River. The city center is busier than ever. And there are moves under way to turn historic properties like the first water depot and the old Customs House into hotels and restaurants. • But downtown still lacks some fundamentals. Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn has a chance to fill in the blanks with InVision Tampa, a yearlong listening tour he launched this month in which residents can propose ideas. Here are a few to get the ball rolling.
Build a better library: The newly opened Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park is an enormously popular gathering place. But a major city also needs a central meeting spot where people can go after hours for free to read, learn and mingle.
The downtown library was built in two parts in the 1960s and '70s. The annex snakes off from the main building through a chute that looks like an escape duct on a gerbil cage. It would be far more appealing to demolish the annex and build an addition on top of the original building. The library would have room for shows and events, a coffee bar/cafe and a new media center. That would breathe life into the facility and open up more waterfront property between the park and the Straz performing arts center.
Extend the streetcar: Downtown destinations, from offices and restaurants to tourist destinations, are not well connected. It is a hassle to walk even in decent weather. The city needs a seamless, reliable public transit system.
The city's streetcar now runs from Ybor City though the Channel District into the south end of downtown. It is a Little Dipper-shaped route that doesn't serve the core of the city center. Users can hop off and walk to a bus, but who has time for that? Extending the street- car — or even the rubber-wheeled trolley — deep into downtown, to the parks, museums and other destinations and expanding regular service would make it easier for locals and visitors to move around the city.
Fill vacant storefronts: For all the multimillion-dollar public and private investment in condos, restaurants and tourist destinations, there are blocks of vacant storefronts. Downtown will never be a neighborhood if its residents must routinely leave to buy the basics.
There is no greater need than for a full-service grocery. The whole point of paying premium prices to live or work downtown is to be centrally located to the action. Beyond looking to attract drugstores, cleaners and other everyday retail, the city should work to locate these shops evenly across the landscape. Northern downtown is especially barren. The city should look to a variety of incentives — from tax breaks to the offer of expanded services — to draw targeted industries.
Attract affordable housing: The condos in the city center and the Channel District make for a glittery backdrop. But it took the recession for many of these units to become affordable. By diversifying the housing base, the city can stabilize property values and guard against a tidal flow in its urban population.
The downtown area has seen three ambitious mixed-market housing plans collapse in recent years, victims of both politics and timing. Across the nation, more people are moving back to the cities. This is an opportunity for urban areas, just as counties reaped the rewards a decade ago by the mass rush to the suburbs. Cities can make the numbers for affordable housing work in many ways. A mass transit system, for example, that enables a resident to get by without a car can boost a household's income 25 percent. Time to get creative.
Use the waterfront: Short of condemning every building west of Ashley Drive, Tampa cannot undo its mistake of building on the riverfront. The city will need to use what few open parcels it has to create a waterfront experience. That will require intensive programming at the two big riverfront parks.
The city has done a good job already of using Curtis Hixon for high-profile events such as Gasparilla. But only regular programming will create some connection. Kayak launches at Water Works Park, a bit north, could give this downtown stretch new appeal as a recreational waterway. And food, drink and second-hand stalls along the Riverwalk could be enough to get students from the nearby University of Tampa off North Boulevard and onto Ashley.