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Straz Center's evolving master plan looks to the Hillsborough River

TAMPA — After nearly three decades holding shows under stage lights, the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts is turning its attention outside, to the banks of the Hillsborough River.

A master plan calls for creating an outdoor event plaza overlooking the river; a waterfront restaurant; and a grassy amphitheater that slopes down to the water.

In addition to creating new view corridors to the river, the center's leadership also envisions giving arriving patrons something to look at: an oval-shaped pavilion set in the water, near shore, maybe something topped by an eye-catching and statement-making piece of sculpture.

"We have five theaters that we consider our venues, but we're looking at the riverfront as a new venue," Straz president Judith Lisi said. "We want to create a cultural center that millennials and their families are going to feel comfortable with."

Now 28 years old, the Straz Center as first built "was their grandparents' vision," she said. "We want this to be their vision."

Although there are renovations planned inside (elevator modernization, new seats in one theater, some new floors and lights), the marquee changes are meant to orient the Straz Center toward the Riverwalk, to connect the center more to downtown and to create spaces outside where people can mingle, go to events or watch performances.

The goal is creating a destination, said Paul Westlake, managing principal of Westlake Reed Leskosky, a New York architecture firm hired to create the master plan.

"It's going to be sculptural," he said. "It's going to be transformational. It's going to be a gift to the public."

Straz administrators and Westlake are meeting with local officials, hydrologists and developers from a nearby project to come up with a finished plan by late May.

"It's bold," said Mayor Bob Buckhorn, who was briefed last week. "It is in keeping with everything that we've tried to do in terms of focusing activity on the waterfront. I think it is very complementary of the Riverwalk and the development that will occur along the Riverwalk."

The thinking is that some elements — especially those nearest to the planned Residences on the Riverwalk apartment tower — could be coordinated with the construction of the 36-story tower and the realignment of Tyler and Cass streets that go with it. Straz administrators said they expect the tower construction to launch in the latter part of the third quarter this year.

To be ready to synch their plan with the tower construction, many questions have to be answered, including where the money would come from for a project that, for now, doesn't have an estimated cost.

"Zeros," Lisi said. "There will be a lot of zeros."

Still, the Straz has experience raising money for big initiatives. The campaign to raise $33 million for the Patel Conservatory, which offers classes in music, dance and theater, took three to five years.

Although the city of Tampa owns the building and rents it to the nonprofit organization that runs the performing arts center, Buckhorn said the kind of expansion being envisioned "would largely have to be funded with a capital campaign that would be private funders and private dollars."

Buckhorn also said he recognized that the plan is still being made, but that the city stands ready to expedite permitting once construction plans are ready. He did caution that "anything you would put in the river would be challenging," not only in terms of the permitting but because of what it could do to navigation on the river. If the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has to get involved, he said, permitting could take years.

The center estimates that it has a statewide economic impact of $100 million annually, generating 100,000 hotel room nights a year. It has 110 full-time and 250 part-time employees.

But a chronic challenge for the Straz is parking — especially on weekends when crowds head to its theaters, plus Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park, the Tampa Museum of Art and the Glazer Children's Museum.

In 2013, Straz administrators looked into but dropped the idea of building a 600-car parking garage on the lot between the center and the Tampa Bay Times building next door.

To help address the parking issue, the master plan contemplates building an underground parking garage with about 100 spaces south of the center, near the entrance to Ferguson Hall. The apartment tower's realignment of the streets has long included a commitment for the developers to help make over the arrival plaza at the Straz.

By making the plazas and lawns outside the Straz more active and integrated with the rest of downtown, one participant said, the changes under consideration will help answer the question, "Where can you go downtown?"

"It's getting better," said Frank "Sandy" Rief III of the Frank E. Duckwall Foundation, which is contributing $245,000 for the master plan. "We aren't Beach Drive yet, but this is going to take us a long way."

Contact Richard Danielson at rdanielson@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3403. Follow @Danielson_Times.

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