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Reshaping Sulphur Springs

Josiah Richardson built a water tower in 1927 as a landmark for his thriving tourist spa at Tampa's Sulphur Springs. The hotel, arcade and guest cottages are gone; bums, mutts and prostitutes now roam the gentle slopes along the Hillsborough River. Yet after decades of neglect by the city, Sulphur Springs has a chance to recapture a piece of its dignified past. The outcome of the effort will show whether Tampa is serious about neighborhoods and historic preservation.

A developer wants to build a Walgreens on the site. Yet another drugstore along the corridor of strip malls, liquor stores and other abominations would make the riverfront even uglier, the basin dirtier and Sulphur Springs a less attractive place to invest, recreate and raise kids. The city needs to decrease the commercial density along N Florida Avenue for the area to revive as other older neighborhoods are doing in Tampa. Buying the tower property would be a start toward giving Sulphur Springs the attention a strong economy has lavished on other areas of the city.

Mayor Dick Greco said two years ago he wanted to build a botanical garden on the site. He sold public land to raise money for the park, and the city has a moral obligation aside from practical reasons to follow through on its commitment. The city and the owner are apart on the price, but both sides have an incentive to deal. The city needs a catalyst to reshape the look of Sulphur Springs, weed the area of drugs and crime and attract new money and permanent residents. Losing the chance to create 13-acres of urban greenspace would be akin to writing off a promising neighborhood. The developer must realize no business can afford to alienate the community before its doors even open. Forcing a drugstore where it's unwanted ensures the city won't respond to requests for road work, landscaping and other publicly funded perks.

It is easy to frame the tower debate in the romance of historic preservation, or easier yet, as a money issue, rather than as a policy decision with broad implications for Sulphur Springs. The money is there if City Hall makes the park a priority. Sulphur Springs doesn't need another pharmacy a stone's throw from an existing drugstore. It needs better housing, higher incomes, more public investment, creative planning, zero-tolerance for junk lots, better access to health care and improved security. Families also need a place to mingle as a community, where children have more than a blacktop, a Dumpster and a four-lane street. A public garden would roll the dominoes in the right direction. A Walgreens won't.

+ John Hill writes editorials for the Times in Tampa. +