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WASTELAND FOR WALKERS

Go to any civic luncheon and you hear the same thing: Downtown Tampa is the hot new neighborhood, a place where you can walk between home and work, shops, entertainment, museums and restaurants. The reality is far different. Downtown is a terrible place to walk - dead, ugly, dirty, vast expanses boarded up. And as long as civic leaders keep spinning fantasy and public officials remain in denial, the environment will not change.

I run downtown three times a week, cycle it on weekends, work there Monday through Friday and walk it every day. Been doing it for years. So it's not like I'm rooting for the other team. But the hype about downtown is so far off the mark it could spark a backlash among the very people who are buying into the urban experience.

Take Franklin Street, downtown's main pedestrian thoroughfare. Head south from Tyler, at the north end, and here's what you see: a park surrounded by a 6-foot fence. Vacant lots. Empty storefront after empty storefront. A nightclub. A condemned building. A city block boarded up in black-painted plywood. More empty storefronts. A restaurant, movie theater, parking lot and a bank. Another vacant lot ("Coming soon - New Condos"). A couple of offices, a couple of shops, more vacant storefronts.

Ashley Drive isn't much better. The library is dead; so is Curtis Hixon Park. The art museum is closed until 2009, when the city will replace it with something better. From the rusted terrace last week, hidden far back from the street, the scene in the park was the usual: one woman and her dog, eight homeless men and a drinking fountain that didn't work.

Downtown is not really a central place at all. The activity follows an L-shape from Ashley south to Jackson Street, veering east and ending as disconnected as the start. For downtown residents, the diversions are slim pickings. Beyond seasonal events, there is little nightlife, or day life on the weekends. The nearest grocery is hardly a quick or easy walk away. While walking to the Times Forum may sound nice, only a fool would walk home after a hockey game.

Mayor Pam Iorio's Riverwalk project was never my thing. It struck me as overly expensive and ill-defined as a destination. And I worried that the Hillsborough River was too dirty, ugly and underutilized to draw people to the downtown waterfront. But I've come around, for practical reasons. People buying $400,000 condos, helping to rebuild the tax base, need - and deserve - some semblance of a neighborhood. Short of condemning everything west of Ashley, it is the only way to open downtown to the riverfront. And foot traffic is the sand that, over time, changes a city's mentality about urban planning.

On Florida Avenue today, there is one place to buy a Coke in the 11 blocks from City Hall to the interstate. The city has made progress, but there is work to do to make downtown livable. Step one is to draw the right conclusions from one woman and her dog and the fountain that doesn't work.

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