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Changing riverfront building rules could injure Tampa's character

Downtown St. Petersburg has a much better waterfront than downtown Tampa. St. Petersburg had the luck and foresight early in this century to set aside plenty of pleasant, open parkland along Tampa Bay. The stretch of public space from the Vinoy south to the Bayfront Center is that downtown's best asset.

Tampa, in contrast, has taken only so-so advantage of the Hillsborough River in its downtown. It was a working river, and in earlier days it was lined with business and industry tied to the waterway. When those days passed, the city did not seize the chance.

Under then-mayor Bob Martinez in the early 1980s, Tampa gave up part of its soul to let NationsBank build its weird, cylindrical tower only a few feet from the river at the corner of Kennedy and Ashley. It was the skyline that mattered most to a place that then called itself "America's Next Great City."

North of the NationsBank monstrosity, heading toward I-275, there are a couple of parking garages bracketing the somewhat sterile (but better than nothing) Curtis Hixon Park. Here, running along the river, there is a sidewalk, true, but it is not especially inviting.

The garden spot on this stretch is on the opposite bank _ the University of Tampa campus _ and if you have never played hooky on a spring afternoon and spent a little time by the river over there, then do it. Bring a Frisbee.

This has been the status quo for years. But now there are hints of change along the river _ change toward denser development, closer to the water.

The mayor of Tampa, Dick Greco, a man who likes to get things done, has named a committee that has proposed loosening the rules.

The committee wants to:

+ Reduce to 15 feet the required setback from the river. It is now 23 feet, and some say even that is too close.

+ Reduce to 10 percent the required open space for a project, down from a current range of 17 to 35 percent.

+ Reduce the required contribution for public art.

There even is talk of adding an apartment project atop one of the parking garages. This would take away that sliver of Curtis Hixon Park between the garage and the river. The park is the site of art festivals, food fairs, and other public events. It is not the most beautiful park, but it is a wonderful gathering place _ Curtis Hixon Common might be a more apt title.

Supporters of these looser rules point out that virtually nothing at all has been built under the current rules. Besides, they say, there only are four undeveloped parcels along the river _ and Greco says maybe the city should buy them. Besides, a proposed riverwalk project would make the smaller setback seem less cramped, supporters say.

So far, the question of building even closer to the river has gotten the most attention. Even the public-art rule has gotten its share of protest from dedicated art supporters. But the smaller requirement for open space is just as serious a change in the long term.

It is not as simple as saying, hey, only a few places are left, what's the big deal? The long-term question is redevelopment _ what happens when some of the older buildings along the waterfront are replaced.

"You get two things (from the existing rules)," says Bob Buckhorn, a member of the Tampa City Council, which is considering the changes. "You get view corridors and public access to the river." By reducing open space, he says, "The only green space left would be what the public pays for."

Buckhorn agrees that bringing residences to the downtown area is a great idea _ but not by taking a slice away from Curtis Hixon Park, one of the few open public spaces along the river.

Tampa's situation is similar to St. Petersburg's, where a wave of new construction has forced the city leaders to think about exactly what they want _ and how much of the city's character they are willing to give up.

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