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Group proposes transforming Friendship Trail Bridge into above-water park

Published May 9, 2012

TAMPA — A group of young professionals says not only can the Friendship Trail Bridge be saved, but it can be transformed into an iconic link between Hills­borough and Pinellas counties.

Like groups before them, this one says it can preserve the pedestrian bridge in large part by raising millions in donations. This time will be different from past efforts that garnered few donations, the members say. That's because they're calling for a complete makeover that would turn the bridge into Tampa Bay's version of the High Line, the above-ground railway converted into a New York City park.

Closer to home, they envision the equivalent of the Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park remake that turned a barren expanse in downtown Tampa to a lush gathering spot for families and hipsters.

"I hear people saying our city has a soul now," said Julia Gorzka Freeman, a communications consultant working on the proposal. "So we have an example in our community of a place that came back to life bigger and better than ever."

Engineers hired by Hillsborough and Pinellas counties have concluded that the aging former expanse of the Gandy Bridge must come down. They say its steel tendons are rusting, concrete chunks are falling into Tampa Bay and public safety is at risk.

Officials closed the bridge in 2008 after a nine-year run in which it attracted hundreds of thousands annually to run, bike and fish. Residents have been fighting to save it since.

Just as commissioners were set to approve spending $4.4 million to demolish parts of it, a new group emerged asking for one last shot at a fix.

Supporters have scheduled a news conference today at the park's fenced entrance to unveil the proposal. The Tampa Bay Times obtained it Tuesday.

Highlights of the slick presentation crafted in little more than a month's time include:

• Demolishing the 252 sections of roadway surfaces identified as at-risk. They're largely the lower, flat bits that come closest to damaging saltwater.

• Replacing them with lower-cost, lighter, precast steel that can be plopped on top of the support piers still in decent shape.

• Interspersing along the pathway several wider activity areas, from gardens to ice cream kiosks, performance venues, shaded seating and other attractions. Cyclists, hikers and others would still have an exercise or commuting path, but others would be drawn in as well.

"The concept itself is extremely interesting," said Hills­borough County Commissioner Victor Crist, one of his board's appointees to the Friendship Trail Bridge Oversight Committee. "It would in essence be a county park over water. What concerns me is the fundraising side."

The group submitting the proposal says the initial construction would cost about $19.5 million. They say they can raise $13 million of it. The rest they're seeking from local government.

About $2 million in government money would go toward partial demolition already planned. The group is hoping the counties would commit to the makeover they say will expand the life of the park for 30 years.

Sponsorships, admissions charges, rents to vendors, along with donations and grants, would cover ongoing operating and maintenance costs.

Supporters made similar rosy projections of philanthropic support when they persuaded commissioners to preserve the span in 1999 rather than demolish it. But few donations came. Public money set aside for demolition paid for decorative light posts, a wooden platform for fisherman in lower areas and upkeep.

This time will be different because of the wholesale makeover, said Ken Cowart, an architect with the firm ASD in Tampa. He said engineers were consulted, and plans they've crafted have attracted interest from potential donors with "big names."

"We're not just reopening it," Cowart said. "We're creating something new. People are inspired by something new."

Backers say they understand the skepticism about whether they can raise the money. They are asking elected officials to give them eight months to show them.

"We're up for it," said consultant Freeman. "If it goes away, it's gone forever."