Open up Tampa’s Riverwalk at the port? Apparently, it’s complicated.

Though the mayor calls it “simply doable,” a study on extending the popular path behind a cruise ship terminal spurs options from costly to complex.
A gate secures the waterside area of Tampa's cruise ship Terminal 2.
A gate secures the waterside area of Tampa's cruise ship Terminal 2. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]
Published Sept. 13|Updated Sept. 13

To some city boosters, the idea seemed pretty simple: Why not open up the area along the water at one of Tampa’s cruise ship terminals when it’s not in use to extend the city’s well-trod Riverwalk beyond its current 2.6 miles?

Don’t look for that anytime soon.

Tampa's Riverwalk sees hundreds of thousands of visitors yearly.
Tampa's Riverwalk sees hundreds of thousands of visitors yearly. [ ANGELICA EDWARDS | Times ]

Months after pushing for a committee to study the possibility, Tampa Mayor Jane Castor found herself listening to options from pricey — $25 million or more — to complex — deploying barges or building an elevated walkway someone compared to New York City’s High Line. One suggestion would put riverwalkers along a city street.

“It’s like we have a minor headache and we’re taking it into brain surgery, as opposed to just taking a couple of aspirin,” Castor, who sits on the governing board of Port Tampa Bay, said at an August presentation. She called the idea of opening the area up “very simply doable — I think we’re just making too big of a deal out of it.”

At issue is cruise ship Terminal 2, which sits on prime waterfront along the port’s shipping channels tucked between the Florida Aquarium and the Sparkman Wharf food and entertainment area in developing Water Street.

The Riverwalk that winds through downtown ends nearby. So some city stakeholders saw the existing path along the water at the wharf area behind the terminal — currently locked behind heavy security gates — as a logical way to extend the popular recreational path when no cruise ships dock there. That area has already been used on occasion as a venue for large gatherings, including a national trade show event with performers and music.

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

The Florida Aquarium, Tampa Downtown Partnership, business owners, residents and elected officials expressed interest in the possibility. Asked about it earlier this year, Jeff Vinik, Tampa Bay Lightning owner and one of the original developers of Water Street, said it would be “great for the citizens of Tampa.”

The idea seemed to get little traction last year. Port officials cited concerns that included cost, liability, security and loss of revenue. “It’s not a light switch,” Port President and CEO Paul Anderson said then.

In January, the mayor pushed for a study group, which ultimately included representatives of Port Tampa Bay, people from area attractions and businesses, developers and a land-use lawyer. At last month’s meeting, two port officials detailed its findings.

The priciest option the group explored was an elevated walkway above the wharf they said would have “no impact” on the cruise terminal and could be a “city attraction.” Estimated cost to implement it, separate from annual operating expenses: $25 million to $30 million.

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“Yeah, personally, we can just throw that out right away. We’re not going to put a walkway at that expense,” Castor said at the meeting. “One, there’s no need and two, it’s just ridiculously expensive, not to mention the impracticality of it.”

Another option explored: barges moored to the dock as a walkway, which would have “limited impact” on the cruise terminal and a “Riverwalk feel” at a cost of $1 million to $1.5 million. Among challenges listed: cost, labor, storage and a tug to install and move the barges, which would have to be removed for cruise ship call days and returned afterward.

The third concept was closest to what some city boosters had been talking about: a walkway on the existing dock behind the terminal. The report said fencing to separate the public from port infrastructure would have to be removed when ships were in port, and this option would cost about $1 million to $1.5 million to implement. Nearly a dozen “challenges” listed included “responsibility/liability.”

Castor asked why a rolling gate couldn’t be used. “Just seems we’re making this much more difficult than it can be,” she said.

The fourth option, called a “concept alternative,” would route Riverwalk users away from the water and along Channelside Drive.

Asked about the mayor’s contention that the issue was being overly complicated, port spokesperson Lisa Wolf-Chason said via email: “It is a complicated issue because there are security, infrastructure, safety, liability, risk management and operational issues.”

Port records indicate Terminal 2 had 28 cruise ship calls last year, 77 scheduled this year and a projected 92 next year. Port officials attributed the increase to construction at another terminal, which moved Royal Caribbean cruises to Terminal 2 — the terminal the cruise line prefers, officials said.

The study group’s report noted that for 2024 the terminal area would be unavailable for Riverwalk options that would affect the terminal for at least 184 days.

Cruise ships in port in Tampa. (Courtesy of Port Tampa Bay)
Cruise ships in port in Tampa. (Courtesy of Port Tampa Bay)

At the end of the meeting, Port Commissioner Patrick Allman asked for a detailed proposal on the option of routing people to Channelside Drive.

Castor also requested docking information on the other two nearby cruise ship terminals so those options could be explored.

“I think allowing our community and visitors to enjoy the waterfront is just as important as the cruise lines,” she said.

The mayor recently told the Tampa Bay Times she still believes there is a path to making the riverfront accessible to the public at the port. But it wasn’t clear anything would happen anytime soon.

“As this issue does not appear to be a priority for the port or board, it seems that we are in a ‘wait-and-see’ position at this time,” Castor said.

Asked by the Times for reaction to the latest events, Florida Aquarium president and CEO Roger Germann responded via text that “while disappointed, the Aquarium remains optimistic and committed to collaboration.”

Said port spokesperson Wolf-Chason: “The port is agreeable to an option that will not impede current or future cruise operations at Terminal 2.”