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Tampa council okays $6.5M project to reopen Water Works Park

TAMPA — Water Works Park may be one of the loneliest in the city — tucked away on the edge of downtown, an interstate overpass looming nearby and fenced off so vagrants don't use it as a flop zone.

But the City Council on Thursday voted to move ahead on a $6.5 million plan to restore and reopen the park next year.

Just north of Interstate 275, the 5-acre park already has plenty of oak trees and a view of the Hillsborough River.

City officials plan to add a new section of the Riverwalk, playgrounds, a restored spring (with a basin where manatees might one day swim up and relax), an event stage, public boat slips, restrooms and other amenities.

For Mayor Bob Buckhorn, this is a key project. He hopes a reborn Water Works Park boosts the new restaurant that Richard Gonzmart is spending more than $4 million to create inside the old water works pump house. He also expects it to complement a planned redevelopment of the Heights, 49 acres with big potential and a checkered history.

Gonzmart's restaurant in the Water Works Building "and us investing in Water Works Park will help to energize and stimulate the redevelopment of Tampa Heights, which will pay huge dividends in terms of property tax revenue," Buckhorn said.

Biltmore Construction of Belleair will handle the park renovation. A big line item in the project budget is $976,000 to clean up the property, part of which once served as a fuel depot for the Tampa Police Department.

"You've got to make sure there's no contaminants there, particularly with the spring right next to it," Buckhorn said.

Work could begin in October. City officials want to have the park done by the time Gonzmart's restaurant opens in the spring or, at a minimum, to have whatever is left to do out of the way of the restaurant's operations.

Once it reopens, Buckhorn hopes the park is as popular as it was after World War I, when the spring was surrounded by a lily pond that was a fashionable spot for Sunday picnics.

By the 1970s, however, homeless people were living in the park and bathing in the spring, so the city fenced and padlocked the property.

Originally, the spring was named for James T. Magbee, a 19th century Tampa judge perhaps best known for his habit of passing out drunk in the street. Then, seven years ago, at the urging of a local Boy Scout, the City Council changed the name to Ulele Spring to honor the daughter of a Timucuan chief who is said to have saved the life of a young 16th century Spanish explorer.

Council settles discrimination lawsuit

The council also approved a $35,000 legal settlement with a former city engineer who said she was fired because she has Chinese ancestry and is a woman.

Xiaojun Li was hired in June 2009 and fired in February 2010. About six months ago, she sued the city, claiming that her boss in the stormwater department treated her more harshly than male, non-Chinese engineers, imitated people with strong accents and told a colleague that since Li was with the city, he did not have to talk to "those Chinese in the county."

The city has denied the allegations and is not admitting any liability, but has agreed to pay Li $35,000 to cover her attorneys' fees, to rehire her as an engineer at a salary of $64,105 as well as to void two negative performance reviews and the notice of dismissal in her personnel file.

Her former supervisor is no longer with the city.