Tampa’s downtown waterfront is open except for this stretch. Why?

Fans of downtown wonder if it’s possible to open up the least-used cruise ship terminal on the waterfront near the Riverwalk. The Port of Tampa is saying (mostly) no for security reasons.
Gates secure the waterside area of Tampa's cruise ship Terminal 2, which is used about 30 days a year. Downtown boosters would love to see it open to the public when not being used by cruise ships.
Gates secure the waterside area of Tampa's cruise ship Terminal 2, which is used about 30 days a year. Downtown boosters would love to see it open to the public when not being used by cruise ships. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]
Published May 12, 2022|Updated May 15, 2022

TAMPA — When downtown boosters talk about “walkability” and “connectivity,” this tantalizing piece of waterfront property sometimes comes up.

Nestled in a sweet spot at downtown’s southeast edge between the Florida Aquarium and the Sparkman Wharf food-and-fun district, it boasts views of the city’s shipping channels. Some see a logical pedestrian link to where the popular 2.6 mile Riverwalk ends nearby — not to mention a prime waterside venue for events.

”We want whatever’s best for downtown,” said Lynda Remund, president and CEO of the Tampa Downtown Partnership, who’s heard the buzz. “If it makes sense for there to be more connectivity between those two spaces, I think we should at least be considering all the options and what that would look like.”

But this particular property is blocked off by imposing black metal gates. It’s home to one of Port Tampa Bay’s three cruise ship terminals — Terminal 2 — that require tight security.

A gate secures the water side area of Tampa's cruise ship Terminal 2.
A gate secures the water side area of Tampa's cruise ship Terminal 2. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]

It’s also the least busy terminal — used about 30 days a year between November and March. So, those boosters wonder, couldn’t it open to pedestrians when not accommodating cruise ships?

“Repurposing the property for public use when not in use by the Port of Tampa, along with an expanded Riverwalk connection, would be a win-win for local residents,” said Kimberlee Curtis, who lives in the nearby Channel District, has a small business there and is chairperson of its Community Redevelopment Area Community Advisory Committee.

Even Tampa Mayor Jane Castor likes the idea: “It would be wonderful to have it open to the public to allow access to the aquarium and other amenities and then to secure it when it’s necessary,” she said through a spokesperson in response to an inquiry from the Tampa Bay Times.

Roger Germann, president and CEO of the aquarium, could see putting exhibits out there for public passersby.

Opening up the area could also improve access to the aquarium’s wildlife tour boat and the American Victory Ship and Museum docked nearby.

“You’d see some changes here that would not only be cool and fun but would integrate the community,” Germann said. “The question: Is there a way to get these gates open?”

It’s not sounding likely, at least for public access for long stretches of time. But for events, that’s a possibility.

Port Tampa Bay spokesperson Lisa Wolf-Chason said the cruise terminal must meet stringent safety regulations and legal requirements when a ship is at berth, citing safety, security and liability concerns about public access even on noncruising days.

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Cruise terminals are “industrial in nature,” and Terminal 2 houses several large pieces of machinery and equipment, including a passenger bridge, that can’t be moved and would pose a danger to the public, she said.

Any plans that impact the security and scope of their operations must be approved by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, she said.

Wolf-Chason also said the port makes “every effort possible” to work with business partners, community groups and neighbors to promote the region, “with special attention paid to the Riverwalk and Water Street areas.”

The property has proven chops as a waterfront event venue.

Visit Tampa Bay president and CEO Santiago Corrada said when cruise ships had been on hiatus last year, Port Tampa Bay was “very gracious” in granting them access for an event that included singers, dancers and stilt walkers for a national trade show.

“It was phenomenal, the views from back there. It really showed well for Tampa,” he said. “The folks that came from all over the world were mega-impressed with the waterfront.”

“In fact, our locals came out and (participated in) the event because they wanted to see that space. They hadn’t seen it in years.”

Wolf-Chason said it’s easier to consider individual happenings there than opening for long periods of time.

“I think we would consider (events) on a case-by-case basis,” she said.

It’s not the first time this piece of waterfront turf has drawn interest — though no doubt it has intensified with downtown’s current transformative growth and the success of the nearby Riverwalk, which already has plans to expand to the north and west on its other end.

A section of Tampa's 2.6 mile Riverwalk.
A section of Tampa's 2.6 mile Riverwalk. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]

Those who value public access also acknowledge the security hurdles.

“It would be great to have it open all the time — it’s definitely an important piece of property,” said Guy Revelle, who owns Splitsville and the JoToro restaurant in Sparkman Wharf. “But when you have a major cruise port, you’ve got to deal with the port on security issues.”

“Anyone who wants this section open, including the Florida Aquarium, wants to do it in a responsible way,” Germann said. “Our hope is there’s a way to work to yes.”