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Downtown waterfront parks: Why all three of Tampa Bay's top cities want them now

A view of the downtown St. Petersburg skyline and waterfront from just north of the North Shore Aquatic Complex. The view is looking south toward Albert Whitted Airport. At the center, left, is where the St. Petersburg Pier used to be. SCOTT KEELER | Times
Published Dec. 2, 2016

Urban waterfront parks are suddenly gotta-have items for Tampa Bay's top cities.

Economic development experts claim such urban parks are key for downtowns already surging with new residents as well as city cores still hoping to attract people to live and work there. Done right, these experts say waterfront parks can be a source of revenues for budget-pressed cities.

St. Petersburg's long established open waterfront is undergoing a master plan facelift while building its first new pier since the 1970s. Tampa's rediscovered its waterfront along the Hillsborough River with the rise of the Riverwalk pedestrian path. Newly envisioned parks are in the works to grace the Garrison Channel waterfront.

Even behind-the-times Clearwater hopes a new waterfront park along the Intracoastal Waterway will help revive its moribund downtown. A bold plan was recently launched for green parks and water views to replace old parking lots and a view-blocking white elephant of a building called Harborview Center.

Urban waterfront park projects for Tampa Bay's trio of cities at the same time? Trend, coincidence, or just keeping up with the Joneses? Give credit to all three.

"There's some envy in Clearwater," acknowledges Keith Greminger, whose Kimley Horn infrastructure consulting firm in Tampa is part of a team behind the "Imagine Clearwater" waterfront park project. "Why not us?"

Waterfront parks can do a lot to re-energize downtowns, not only making them more appealing to potential residents and families but also to tourists. But they do not come cheap.

Parks are more important but also more difficult to make happen with tight public budgets, says David Conner. His Tampa landscape architect firm works with Strategic Property Partners, the joint venture of Jeff Vinik and Cascade Investment pursuing an ambitious $3 billion redevelopment around Tampa's Amalie Arena and the nearby waterfront.

A 3-person panel — two urban developers and an architect, each representing one of the waterfront park projects under way in Clearwater, Tampa and St. Petersburg — described how parks can lift the modern city landscape and lifestyle during a Thursday gathering in Tampa of the Urban Land Institute.

Panelists included Cary Hirschstein of the national consulting firm HR&A Advisors, who is working on the Clearwater park; Matt Davis, vice president of development for Strategic Property Partners (SPP) in Tampa; and Jason Jensen, principal with Wannemacher Jensen Architects in St. Petersburg, who is helping to design the approach leading from St. Pete's waterfront to what will be the city's new pier.

Here are four top takeaways from their wide-ranging remarks:

1. Waterfront parks can help build a city's distinctive brand and differentiate urban areas too often awash with look-alike Starbucks, chain stores and restaurants.

2. Tomorrow's urban parks will not be designed as tranquil escapes from the city hubbub but as attractive places to woo lots of people. Parks will be heavily "programmed" with events like music, wine and art festivals and charity runs, and feature plenty of food trucks. When lots of people gather, parks become social settings. They also offer opportunities for cities to gain revenues from concession stands, entertainment venues and private sponsorships. Popular parks can also increase the value of nearby real estate.

A key word of these advisors? Design parks to be "flexible" and able to change with the times.

3. Do not build a waterfront park and forget the property surrounding it. Urban density is important, allowing parks to attract more people who can simply walk to the location.

"We need adjacent properties feeding the park," says Jensen. Sometimes that may require changes to zoning rules.

4. It's better to have fewer but larger parks as attractive regional destinations with plenty of things to do. Chopping up land into lots of little parks with few amenities tends to limit their use to nearby neighborhoods.

In recent discussions about the proposed Clearwater park, one topic that rarely surfaces in public is the dominating presence of the Church of Scientology in the city's core. This past Wednesday, 175 citizens showed up at an information session about the park. No one aired their Scientology concerns at the public event.

While city officials maintain there is an established truce with the church, many people argue downtown Clearwater lags economically because few see any economic opportunity in investing there.

Park consultant Hirschstein is well aware of the downtown rift and challenge of creating a major park that can appeal to everyone. He says he is in regular contact with Scientology leaders who tell him many people who visit the church would enjoy a park with a view of the Intracoastal and the setting sun.

"Downtown has had some troubles and stumbles," Hirschstein says. No dollar figure has been placed on the Imagine Clearwater park project, which is still in the early stages.

The last significant effort to invigorate the downtown area failed in 2015. That's when the Clearwater Marine Aquarium, still riding high from the tourism popularity of the 2011 Dolphin Tale movie and its 2014 sequel, announced it had scrapped plans to build a new multimillion-dollar aquarium overlooking downtown's Coachman Park. Instead, it opted to expand its existing facility.

Bottom line? Tampa Bay is lucky to have three of its major downtowns situated on striking waterfronts. Most U.S. cities would be green with envy to have such a natural asset.

Contact Robert Trigaux at rtrigaux@tampabay.com. Follow @venturetampabay.

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