TAMPA — After a recent afternoon showing of Aladdin at the Straz Center, a crossing guard directed patrons scurrying out to walk under metal scaffolding. The makeshift street-level walkway has replaced the covered pedestrian bridge that once crossed high over traffic on Cass and Tyler streets and connected the Straz Center and William Poe parking garage.
The scaffolding is expected to stay in place for two to three years as construction continues on the high-rise apartment tower that will be built on a parcel of land adjacent to the Straz and John F. Germany Library.
So far, patrons of the Straz and the library have lodged few complaints.
Janet Marnatti, library project manager with the Hillsborough County Public Library Cooperative, said impact to the public has been minimized. The library’s west entrance, which was connected to the pedestrian bridge, was where the children’s library was housed. The annex was closed for the demolition of the bridge.
“Access to the library and its hours of operation have not changed,” Marnatti said.
Lorrin Shepard, Chief Operating Officer at the Straz, said the construction is temporary but will eventually lead to an improved walkway for Straz patrons.
“We’re working hand-in-hand with the developer and the City of Tampa,” he said. “We’re meeting almost every week.”
In the interim, the Straz Center has directed theater-goers to consider other options when attending performances, including parking in locations across downtown or using Lyft, Uber or watertaxis.
“That seems to be going pretty well,” Shepard said. “We’re living in a very dynamic city with a lot of changes.”
But the project has drawn critics since its early phases, when the 36-story residential tower was proposed in 2012 by developers at the Intown/Framework group. The project proposed realigning Cass and Tyler streets and eliminating the covered pedestrian bridge.
Representatives of the John F. Germany Library and Straz Center expressed their concerns at the time.
In a 2013 letter to the Tampa Tribune, the library board chairman noted that nearly 70,000 library patrons used the library’s west entrance, and that “the developer’s plan to take the library’s existing access will decrease children’s safety.”
The developers met with Friends of the Library and the board and came up with a revised plan that would demolish the walkway during construction and rebuild from the Poe Garage across Cass Street and include an elevator to a covered expanded entrance to the Straz Center.
The City Council then voted 5-2 to rezone the project, and sold the land to the developers for $4 million, money which would be used to turn Tyler and Cass from one-way streets into two-way streets. In 2015, the developers transferred the project to the Miami-based American Land Ventures Residences on the River.
But in a city council community redevelopment area meeting in September, some council members questioned the $6 million the city has spent in reworking the roadways.
“We’re paying them to take the property and develop it, is that right?” council member Bill Carlson asked.
Rob Rosner, who manages four of the city’s redevelopment areas, said changing property and construction values resulted in the cost difference.
Councilman John Dingfelder echoed Carlson’s sentiments.
“The Straz folks don’t like this project,” he said. “They think it’s never been a good project or a good location in regard to the city.”
Councilman Charlie Miranda said the Straz Center had never complained directly.
Thirty-two members of the Straz Center board favored the plan while 16 opposed it and 14 did not vote.
Carlson said former Mayor Bob Buckorn, of whom he has been a vocal critic, bullied his way into securing the deal.
But Carlson said to the Times his complaints are now in the past.
“I think it’s done,” he said. “It’s not the fault of the current owners or developers at all. Going forward, I think we just need to make sure we don’t allow the city to be reckless anymore. We are custodians of taxpayer money and assets.”