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Tampa's version of Central Park gets its finishing touches before Friday's debut

Workers put  finishing touches Monday on the area of the harbor dock and learning cove at the Julian B. Lane Riverfront Park. The 25-acre park officially opens this weekend with a two-day celebration featuring live music, food, activities and fireworks. [JAMES BORCHUCK  |  Times]
Workers put finishing touches Monday on the area of the harbor dock and learning cove at the Julian B. Lane Riverfront Park. The 25-acre park officially opens this weekend with a two-day celebration featuring live music, food, activities and fireworks. [JAMES BORCHUCK | Times]
Published May 8, 2018

TAMPA — Huge piles of mulch remain to be spread. The bocce ball court isn't ready yet. And dozens of other little details remain for construction workers to complete in the final days before Julian B. Lane Riverfront Park opens to the public.

On Monday, Mayor Bob Buckhorn said the signature public works project of his two-term administration was 99 percent ready to go for its Mother's Day weekend debut, when concerts are scheduled by the Florida Orchestra, the U.S. Navy Band and pop act Third Eye Blind, which the mayor referred to initially as "Third Blind Eye."

Spokeswoman Ashley Bauman corrected him, and Buckhorn said that's why he has "hipsters" working for him.

"I wanted the Commodores," Buckhorn quipped, referring the funk-soul Motown act.

But attracting millennials from downtown and Seminole Heights to the west side of the Hillsborough River is serious business for the city. These young professionals, according to city parks and recreation officials, should find appeal in the park's adult soccer leagues, concerts, state-of-the-art boat house where kayaks and paddle-boards will be offered for rent, and 25 acres to just plain chill.

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Millennials are just part of the target audience, though. A playground and splash pad will draw families, including those from nearby public housing, Buckhorn said.

Basketball courts and playing fields are designed to encourage people from across racial and class lines to rub shoulders, Buckhorn said.

"Green spaces and public parks are the great equalizers," Buckhorn said during a break in a media tour of the park Monday morning. "You don't have to buy a ticket. You just come with your family and create memories."

Buckhorn said Water Works Park, opened in 2014, is a good example of how splash pads can bring diverse groups of people together.

Julian B. Lane park, named for a mayor whose 1959-1963 term was notable for his civil rights efforts, cost $35.5 million to develop — about $15 million of it from Tampa's settlement with BP over the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster.

Construction started in June 2016 but the original 18-month schedule stretched to nearly two years after unexpected debris and "bad dirt" slowed progress. The park's price tag also riled City Council members last summer when they reluctantly voted for a property tax increase, grumbling that they wouldn't have approved so much money for Julian B. Lane had they known it would contribute to a higher tax bill.

Now that it's nearly done, the mayor said, people will remember the legacy, not the drama.

"It's a game changer," Buckhorn said.

The mayor will deliver his annual State of the City speech from the main stage near the water on Friday morning, kicking off a weekend that city officials expect will see a packed park. Depending on when the Tampa Bay Lightning play, another celebration might be added to the park's full schedule of events, said Bauman, the city spokeswoman.

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The Mayor's Mac n' Cheese Throwdown on Saturday and concerts on Sunday will headline a bevy of free family-friendly activities at the park.

Perhaps the centerpiece of the park is the two-story boat house which contains space to house high school and club crew teams and a second-floor special events room with a capacity of more than 300 that has picturesque views of the downtown skyline.

Skyscrapers aren't likely to sprout on the western bank, but Buckhorn said his administration's public investment in the park is already spurring private redevelopment in North Hyde Park.

"Its taking the best asset we have as a city, which is that water, and creating a place of destiny," Buckhorn said. "What will happen here is what happened on the east side."

Contact Charlie Frago at cfrago@tampabay.com or (727)893-8459. Follow@CharlieFrago.