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Sue Carlton: Residents hopeful, wary about plans for Tampa park

What you see in the sprawling park at the edge of downtown Tampa depends on where you sit.

Tucked between older urban neighborhoods and the west riverbank where college rowers slice through the water, Julian B. Lane Riverfront Park is either a city's rich past or its promising future.

People are hopeful. People are leery. And maybe it can be both.

Named for a dairy rancher who was mayor back when Tampa was integrating its lunch counters, the park is 23 green acres on the northwest corner along Interstate 275, on the grittier Other Side of the Hillsborough River and across the water from downtown's shiny high-rises.

Mayor Bob Buckhorn does not appear to notice downtown boundaries. The river will be the center of the city's "urban core" one day, he likes to say, not its west edge. "Why they turned their backs on the river is just beyond me," he says, meaning all those buildings and parks like this one, built so you couldn't really see a river runs through it.

Already this is changing. And change worries some West River residents as the city readies for a $10.5 million makeover for the park at the heart of their neighborhood. Some are "very concerned," says City Council member Frank Reddick. He grew up blocks from the park, when the pool was still open, and people barbecued regularly after church. The park has basketball and tennis and a bustling Boys & Girls Club at its edge. "The only public park they have in this community," he calls it. Will its next incarnation be all about new development and not the community that has long been there?

Ruth McNair keeps a picture on her wall of her husband cuddling their baby granddaughter at the park. He is gone and the granddaughter is 22, but the park is part of their history. McNair, who has for decades headed the West Riverfront Crime Watch, would like to see fitness equipment for seniors, lighting for sports fields, amenities for young people. She worries about traffic. Her neighbors get letters from investors wanting to buy their homes.

Here is what the mayor says about change: "That park is vastly underutilized, inefficient and the neighborhood deserves better. It blocks the river completely and is not as safe as it could or should be." Residents, he says, are part of the conversation on what's to come. And it is worth mentioning that no one pushed harder for the remake of Perry Harvey Sr. Park on the other side of downtown and its plans to honor Tampa's storied African-American history.

It will be a delicate balance, a city's past and future.

Of course the mayor sees the park opening up to the waterfront. (A river really does run through it.) Splash fountains? A dog park? This much is certain: The strange grassy mounds — some landscaping trend from the '60s? — are likely out, and no objections are expected.

Speaking of change, across the river on the tall building side, Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park, once a dull expanse of brown grass, is now a centerpiece. I pass its splashy interactive fountains and see suburban kids on field trips and kids on bikes from nearby neighborhoods.

At 6 p.m. Tuesday, officials, residents and anyone interested will meet at Blake High School about the future of their park on the river. "The city has said the neighborhood has a stake in it," McNair says, and you can bet she will be there to make sure.