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The Straz wants more parking on the riverfront. City Hall remains cautious

The David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts is looking for ways to improve a longstanding parking shortage near the facility. [Photo courtesy of Straz Center]
The David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts is looking for ways to improve a longstanding parking shortage near the facility. [Photo courtesy of Straz Center]
Published Feb. 9, 2018

TAMPA —Parking at the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts has been a nightmare for years, even delaying show starts. But a proposal to alleviate the crunch isn't getting a standing ovation at City Hall just yet.

The Straz wants to remove a landscaped berm on the north side of West Tyler Street to expand its arrival plaza. That would create an undetermined amount of parking and increase capacity for the center's valet service, which accounts for about 10 percent of its traffic, said Lorrin Shepard, the Straz's chief operating officer.

The Straz's proposal, though, conflicts with the city's existing waterfront zoning regulations. To allow the expansion of the plaza, the City Council would have to approve an ordinance change.

That's something city officials are still considering.

"We're haven't taken a position. I don't think it's been fully vetted yet," said Bob McDonaugh, the city's economic opportunity administrator. "We've not had parking on the river for a reason, but maybe this is a unique circumstance."

The center's master plan has always envisioned more parking for patrons. As downtown has gotten more lively, it's stretched the capacity of the city's nearby Poe Garage to handle busy nights at the performing arts center. Alternate parking at the Riverfront Gate Center or near Interstate 275 have helped some, but the parking dilemma remains unsolved, Straz officials said.

"We feel like things have gotten tighter, tighter and tighter," said Judith Lisi, the Straz's president and chief executive officer.

Removing the berm and relocating most of the oaks and elms to the northern part of the property would help smooth things out, she said. To minimize runoff into the Hillsborough River, water-permeable pavers would be used on the plaza and a retaining wall erected, Shepard said. The Southwest Florida Water Management District, or "Swiftmud," has approved the changes.

Talks between city and Straz officials are in the early stages. The Straz would like to start the $375,000 expansion during this summer's slow season, Shepard said.

The work would likely coincide with a planned rerouting of Cass and Tyler streets to accommodate a planned 30-story residential tower developed by American Land Ventures. That tower footprint also quickened discussions on Straz parking as it's 300 units are expected to further congest downtown traffic, a problem likely to start during the tower's construction, Straz officials said.

Friends of the Riverwalk executive director Jason Carroll said his organization has been briefed on the project and will meet with officials again to get more details. The group isn't currently opposed to the plan.

"The Straz Center is a great partner in the progress of the Tampa Riverwalk and has helped champion a focus on our waterfront," Carroll wrote in an email.

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Straz officials say the arrival plaza, when complete, will enhance access to the Riverwalk, making it "clearer and safer," said Straz spokesman Paul Bilyeu.

Council member Harry Cohen said he favors the changes. It makes sense considering the Straz's parking challenges, he said.

His understanding is that the zoning change would only apply to the Straz and the Tampa Convention Center, which already has riverfront parking, and doesn't endanger the city's Riverwalk or waterfront ecosystem.

"We don't generally favor allowing things to be developed with parking right along the water but this is an already existing condition that needs to be adapted to the present reality. This is not a start from scratch type of thing," Cohen said.

The council is expected to take up the ordinance change in March with a final vote in June, according to timeline provided by the Straz.

Editor's Note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly described the area represented by council member Harry Cohen.

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