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Buckhorn: Use BP oil spill money to upgrade Riverfront Park

Mayor Bob Buckhorn said this week he wants to spend a “significant chunk” of a $20 million settlement from BP on a planned makeover of Julian B. Lane Riverfront Park. This rendering showing proposed improvements is from Civitas, the Denver urban design firm that helped plan the park.
Mayor Bob Buckhorn said this week he wants to spend a “significant chunk” of a $20 million settlement from BP on a planned makeover of Julian B. Lane Riverfront Park. This rendering showing proposed improvements is from Civitas, the Denver urban design firm that helped plan the park.
Published Sep. 18, 2015

TAMPA — From the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history, the city of Tampa could get a much nicer downtown park.

City Hall now has a $20 million legal settlement in hand from its lawsuit against BP over the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010.

Mayor Bob Buckhorn said at least some of the BP money should go toward a planned makeover of Julian B. Lane Riverfront Park.

"That project is transformative enough that it warrants a significant chunk of that money," Buckhorn said.

The revamped park, which is on the west bank of the river across from the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts, would be an anchor for redevelopment in West Tampa, he said.

On Thursday, City Council members didn't object, but they did ask for more details as park plans and costs come together and officials decide how much of the BP settlement they might use on the project. That hasn't happened yet, city chief financial officer Sonya Little said.

The park's redevelopment is expected to cost more than $20 million. So far, the city has spent a little more than $1 million.

Plans for the park include:

• Flattening its man-made earthen mounds to open new, sweeping views to the Hillsborough River and downtown Tampa.

• A 16,250-square-foot "river center" with community space upstairs and a boathouse and rental boats downstairs.

• A splash play area, dog park, bigger playground, larger athletic field, new sand volleyball courts and a history walk honoring Roberts City, a racially mixed neighborhood wiped out in the 1960s by urban renewal.

Next year's budget, approved by the council on Tuesday, includes $5 million for the park's redevelopment, and Buckhorn said it would a "perfect use" for the BP money.

"It should be something that's significant, and it should be something that we wouldn't have been able to do otherwise," he said. "You could have in Julian B. Lane the same impact that Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park has had."

A couple of council members had mentioned using the BP money to prepare Tampa for the storm surge from a hurricane. Given the scale of the challenge, Buckhorn doubted that the BP money would make much of a difference.

"That would be a drop in the bucket to fix that problem," he said.

City Hall sued BP in April 2013. No oil reached Tampa itself, but officials said news images of the burning derrick, befouled beaches and oil-soaked pelicans scared away enough conventions and tourists to result in $59.4 million in lost tax revenues.

The city settled its case in July for $27.4 million, which resulted in a $20 million payout after litigation expenses and the fee for attorney Steve Yerrid, who took the case on a 25 percent contingency.

Council: Rescind Go Hillsborough money

In unrelated business, the council voted to try to take back $74,985 it approved for the Go Hillsborough transit initiative.

On Sept. 3, council members voted to pay the money to Parsons Brinckerhoff, the engineering firm hired to gather public input for Go Hillsborough, a long-term effort that could lead to a referendum asking voters to consider a sales tax for transportation projects.

But on Wednesday, the Hills­borough County Commission asked for an audit of its $1.35 million contract with Parsons Brinckerhoff.

That happened after WTSP 10News questioned whether Tampa public relations consultant Beth Leytham, a subcontractor to whom Parsons Brinckerhoff is paying $32,000 of the $74,985, gained an unfair advantage with local officials before the contract was awarded.

"It appears that my concerns were somewhat well-founded," said Lisa Montelione, who voted against the payment. "We need to put the brakes on this until after the audit report is returned to the county."

Mike Suarez offered another reason for overturning the original vote. He said the city shouldn't have agreed to pay the money to Parsons Brinckerhoff, but should have entered into an agreement with the county.

City officials are scheduled to report back on Oct. 1 whether the money has been paid and, if so, what the city's alternatives might be then.

$19.5 million contract for project approved

In a separate vote, the council approved a $19.5 million contract to move some Water Department operations to E 26th Avenue and N 40th Street.

The new facility will replace the city's existing utility truck yard and offices on N Rome Avenue near the Hillsborough River. The contract is going to Cutler Associates, a construction firm with offices in Tampa and Massachusetts.

Buckhorn plans to move 245 employees and several hundred vehicles off the Rome Avenue property so he can sell those 12 acres to apartment developers as part of his "West River" redevelopment initiative.