TAMPA — The City Council on Thursday night voted to allow a clean scrubbing for a 650-foot stretch of riverfront seawall now painted over with about two dozen rowing team logos, a half-dozen roughed-in Greek fraternity names and a couple of four-letter words.
The city will pay $40,000 for the project, with another $40,000 coming from the nonprofit Friends of the Riverwalk.
Mayor Bob Buckhorn wants the wall cleaned because the city plans to install interactive underwater lights — they will change color as people walk by — along the Riverwalk as part of the Lights On Tampa 2015 public art program.
Speaking in favor of the graffiti were several residents and a trio of collegiate rowers who said the rowing logos help define Tampa's character and are worthy of preservation. Destroying them, 20-year-old Alex Posada said, would send an unwelcoming signal to teams that visit to train on the Hillsborough River.
"Rowing is one of those odd but cool aspects of Tampa's culture," said Francis Migliore, 19, a former Berkeley Prep rower who is now a sophomore rower at Colgate University. "It's one of the things that make us different from, say, Orlando or Miami."
On the other side, supporters of the proposal included a major downtown developer, the building manager of a downtown office tower, officers of the nonprofit Tampa Downtown Partnership and the president of the Stewards Foundation, which coordinates visits from visiting college rowing teams. Stewards president Tom Feaster said it's much more important that the public get a chance to see the grace and discipline of the sport of rowing up close, like from the vantage point of the Riverwalk, than to see the rowing team logos on that one section of seawall.
One project supporter said the seawall paintings should be considered vandalism that would destroy the waterfront as a destination if allowed to remain.
"Crew art and graffiti don't belong on our new front door, our new beautiful Riverwalk," said Troy Manthey, owner of Yacht Starship Dining Cruises in Channelside. "No one should be allowed to freely paint and deface public and private property."
Council member Yvonne Yolie Capin argued to preserve the graffiti, saying 99 percent of the emails she's received on the issue have come from young people, "the kind of people we are trying to attract to our city."
"We should be promoting it, not erasing it," she said. "It is part of our tradition. It is part of who we are. It is organic, it is traditional, it is unique."
The council voted 6-0, with Mary Mulhern absent, to approve the expenditure. Council members also pressed city staff to document the logos to be erased, perhaps with an eye to replicating them elsewhere along the river. Capin supported the proposal after the council pressed to add language to its approval limiting the work to the 650 feet of seawall from the Kennedy Boulevard bridge north to the southern edge of Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park.
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City officials say they never intended to go any further or erase rowing graffiti on other parts of Tampa's 10,600 feet of seawall.
"There's a perception out there that we're going to pressure-wash the entire both banks of the river, which we're not," Buckhorn said before the vote. "No desire to do it."
Buckhorn said he's a fan of the rowing team graffiti in general, but the seawall that will be next to the Riverwalk has some offensive language that's "clearly inappropriate" as well as some graffiti with no aesthetic value.
"Drunken fraternity guys painting on the wall is not art," he said. "I like the crew art. It's just not appropriate at that location, and that's all we're going to clean."