The seasonal ice skating rink that opened this month at Curtis Hixon Park is another reminder of the vibrant role the city's parks have to play in the development of downtown Tampa. Mayor Bob Buckhorn needs to continue the quality programming at Curtis Hixon and elsewhere and work to bring Riverfront Park on the western bank of the waterfront into the downtown mix.
The rink, which runs through Jan. 5, is an annual favorite that draws thousands every day to skate and watch. And it doubles as a draw to the waterfront park, bringing people to the Riverwalk and the adjacent museums. In only a few years, Curtis Hixon has become the public gathering space that then-Mayor Pam Iorio hoped to create before leaving office in 2011. Now the challenge is to build on the park's prominence and bring activity to other green spaces throughout downtown.
Several ongoing efforts could help do just that. The master plan the city is drafting for the greater downtown area could act as a guide for incorporating the parks much more fully into the downtown experience. The trick for Curtis Hixon is to keep the park humming with events; the city has done a good job of programming functions of every size and variety, from music and cultural events to Buckhorn's annual state of the city speech. The pocket parks downtown aren't as accommodating, but the city can do minor things — adding benches, allowing drink carts — to make them more appealing.
The city, the Tampa Housing Authority and civic leaders are looking to redevelop a vast area of West Tampa that runs to the western bank of the Hillsborough River, opposite from downtown. This is an opportunity to bring the underutilized Riverfront Park more fully into the sphere of downtown activity. The park's vast open space and waterfront location make it a perfect setting for dog walks, picnics and other everyday diversions. The city should preserve the clean sight lines on the northern end and work to make Riverfront more of a focal point.
The city is also preparing to reopen Water Works Park, across from Riverfront. That would stretch the ribbon of waterfront park land from the performing arts center to the northern edge of downtown. Once completed, with a restaurant, kayak launch and other amenities, Water Works will connect downtown with the historic neighborhoods north. Thousands of residents will have a picturesque gateway into downtown and an outdoor corridor for cycling, running or walking. The city will need to maintain a safe, clean pathway and a passive environment to maximize the natural attraction of the river.
Great urban settings are not measured by buildings alone. In rediscovering its parks, Tampa has a chance to soften the earlier mistakes of building along the river. The downtown waterfront is an asset only if people can see it and enjoy it. Curtis Hixon has become a popular spot because the vista speaks for itself. The city should replicate that model at its other parks and look to use the downtown green space for the broadest public benefit.