What’s it like to be an urban designer in Tampa, a city growing up fast?

A conversation with Ashly Anderson, who likes wide sidewalks and had a hand in that Riverwalk cup with the handy map on it.
Ashly Anderson, urban designer, on the Tampa Riverwalk.
Ashly Anderson, urban designer, on the Tampa Riverwalk. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
Published Mar. 9

Sometimes a childhood can hint at a future career.

For Ashly Anderson, urban designer, maybe it was being raised in a sandy Florida town with waterfront manufactured from dredged canals and not enough trees. Maybe it was being fascinated at Epcot with how well they created a sense of place.

Maybe it’s becoming a person who can say they fell in love with a town for its street grid.

Anderson, 36, recently left the Tampa Downtown Partnership after nearly a decade of working on projects that included helping to activate the Riverwalk. A conversation about a city finding its feet.

Where are you from?

Cape Coral, Florida, about 2 hours south of here.

If you look at Cape Coral on a map, it’s pretty clear why I’ve dedicated my life to cities: (It’s) dredged canals to form waterfront property. It was quite the poster child for the boom (in) 2006 and then the Great Recession in 2008, because it kind of grew really fast and then people lost a lot.

I moved to Tampa in 2005 for undergrad (at) the Art Institute of Tampa. I came to Tampa to look at it and I fell in love with Tampa’s character, with its street grid.

You fell in love with a street grid?

I did. I loved that it had a grid and it felt like a big city, a growing city.

Any hints growing up you’d be an urban designer? Were you addicted to Legos or always moving the furniture so it made more sense?

I would go to a place like Epcot and marvel at the scale and how it made people feel and how it made me feel. That was probably an early indicator. I’d go sit in the Morocco area and it’s very immersive, and I’d think, why does it feel like this?

And it’s because the design around me is telling me that.

Talk about your career path.

(She started at the RS&H firm) — interior design, interior architecture. I worked on things like Tampa International Airport, Moffitt Cancer Center, Raymond James (Stadium).

All my free time was spent volunteering with my friends and my now-husband at the Urban Charrette, advocating for progressive Tampa policies. We could tell (Tampa) was right on the edge ... We knew if we weren’t willing to step up to the plate to do this kind of work … we had this young energy.

Basically the American Institute of Architects will fund a bunch of professionals go to a community to observe and learn. They’re really giving big picture ideas to help a community get unstuck or just get an outside perspective.

We applied (and) it was a really cool experience. Some of those recommendations you see: more bike lanes, less surface parking, more public art, more collaboration between entities.

Then the recession hit me like it did most architecture and planning professionals: I was laid off. (She went to the USF School of Architecture on scholarship for people already working in the field and got her master’s degree.)

I was interested in joining the Tampa Downtown Partnership as they were expanding the need to activate the parks, particularly Curtis Hixon Park. It was like: This park needs life.

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The Partnership (said) we will put things in there: free things to do, yoga in the park, Rock the Park, all those things that start to make our downtown feel lively instead of the sidewalks-roll-up folklore.

(Their charge, once the Riverwalk’s long and expensive construction was over:) How do we get the community to love it?

Was the Riverwalk cup you helped work on, printed with a map of the path and useful for adult beverages, part of getting people to love it?

I think so. Seeing the banners with the (Riverwalk) logo, knowing there’s events happening on it, knowing you can go to an adjacent bar or restaurant and there’s a map on the cup, all of it.

From left, Laura Burdick, 27, of Tampa, walks Ollie, a 2-year-old a miniature poodle, and Joann Smith, 25, of Tampa, walks Sassy, a 4-year-old corgi, along the Tampa Riverwalk.
From left, Laura Burdick, 27, of Tampa, walks Ollie, a 2-year-old a miniature poodle, and Joann Smith, 25, of Tampa, walks Sassy, a 4-year-old corgi, along the Tampa Riverwalk. [ ANGELICA EDWARDS | Times ]

You were president of the Gasparilla Festival of the Arts?

(In) 2016. My year went well, but my vice president year was the rain-mud year. That was rough. Both the president and I got on the walkie-talkies that morning and voted to close it (but it went forward). It was Mother Nature. There was literally nothing we could do about it.

What’s the most interesting project you’ve worked on?

It was so fun to collaborate with so many partners on the Ardent Mills flour mill since it was such a significant site. (The old mill downtown moved to a new facility, making room for Water Street to develop to the north.)

Tampa Mayor Jane Castor starts the demolition of the former Ardent Mills Flour Mill downtown.
Tampa Mayor Jane Castor starts the demolition of the former Ardent Mills Flour Mill downtown. [ LAUREN WITTE | Times ]

The most frustrating?

I am not going to answer the big T, transportation. I’m going to answer smaller: sidewalks that are bigger, wider and safer.

The other big challenge as we continue to develop residential: Affordable housing within the urban core area. It should be a great place to live for everybody.

What’s your new job?

I’m joining a locally owned firm called InVision Advisors. It takes on clients like developers, owners, local governments, non-profits ... helping them get their projects built on budget, on time, with good public buy-in. Shepherding‚ really.

The good news, I’m still downtown’s biggest cheerleader.

What are the trends in urban design?

More supportive small business opportunities in urban spaces — mobile vending, small business incubator spaces, maybe ground floor retail spaces that are smaller in size, really making sure that ground floor space is used for something cool.

Also one of the most important trends ... because cities are competing for people and intellectual capital, is making sure your downtown and downtown neighborhoods have a unique and identifiable brand. Tampa is competing now with the Nashvilles and Austins. Having a good sense of who you are and what your brand is is going to be really important.

What’s Tampa’s brand?

That’s a tricky one. At this point I call it the mosaic of uniqueness. The Channel District feels different than Ybor City which feels different than Tampa Heights. Kind of like that Spanish tile of colors.

Ybor City's iconic chickens.
Ybor City's iconic chickens. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]

Are you a sleek high-rise dweller or an urban bungalow type?

Urban bungalow type myself, but appreciate the sleek high rise anyway.

The urban bungalow goes back to Cape Coral — not a lot of trees, kind of sandy. Tampa has some of the best tree canopy in the world, those huge, beautiful oak trees. There’s raccoons, there’s birds. Having all that but still being in an urban environment — that’s cool.