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Tampa City Council learns details on proposed cafe in downtown park

Council members and residents suggest Mayor Jane Castor’s administration take it slow on the idea and consider bringing back the park’s benches.

TAMPA — Council members and residents have a few menu suggestions they want Mayor Jane Castor to ponder as she considers a proposal to open a cafe in a downtown park.

Easy on the cafe. And some extra benches on the side.

Or at least return benches somewhere to Lykes Gaslight Square Park, which has been devoid of places to sit since former mayor Bob Buckhorn removed all seating in March.

The Tampa Downtown Partnership, which already helps keep nearby sidewalks tidy, wants to open a cafe on the eastern edge of the park with tables and seats for diners. Castor supports it as part of her effort to “activate” the city’s parks into destination spots.

Sal Ruggiero, the city’s interim administrator of neighborhood enhancement, said the idea is to regenerate the park, which was a popular spot for the homeless to congregate and occasionally get fed before the changes earlier this year.

“With Tampa developing into a world-class city, this is going to be a world-class amenity,” Ruggiero said, pointing to parks in New York City with similar partnerships between cities and private interests.

The partnership, which levies an assessment on many downtown property owners to provide services like the Clean Teams and downtown guides, has been talking to officials for several years about the idea. But it was unveiled Thursday for the first time in a public forum.

It got a rocky reception.

RELATED: Tampa’s new plan: a cafe in Lykes Gaslight Square Park

More than a half-dozen speakers said the cafe would compete with existing restaurants around the square-block radius of the park. They complained that it would only offer paying customers places to sit.

Several people said reviving the park meant bringing back the benches, not launching another eatery.

We don’t need more places to eat downtown. There’s plenty of places to eat downtown,” said Mike Pettit, one of the speakers during public comment.

Earlier, several council members had voiced suspicion or confusion about the idea. Although partnership officials were present in the audience, they didn’t speak.

“I don’t understand. I can’t go to church on Sunday and call myself a Christian and allow this nonsense to go on," said council member Guido Maniscalco.

Council member Bill Carlson blamed Buckhorn for “politicizing” the park and said the previous controversy surrounding the homeless had made it difficult for good ideas to take root.

Council member John Dingfelder offered a possible compromise.

“I think we can have benches and we can have a restaurant with proper seating,” he said.

The talks between the partnership and the city are still in the early stages. City attorneys are working out what kind of legal arrangement would allow the cafe. Or how much, if any, money would be have to be paid by the partnership to the city.

Other public spaces, including Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park and the Riverwalk, have lease arrangements with privately owned restaurants or bars. The city is currently discussing another leasing option with the owner of a building next to Herman Massey Park, on the north end of downtown, who wants to open a restaurant and rooftop bar.

RELATED: Owner of long-vacant building wants to lease part of Herman Massey Park for a cafe

In other business, council members voted 6-1 to extend the city’s $538,000 contract with the Tampa Bay Economic Development Council.

Carlson voted no, saying the agency was not transparent, misreported data and wasn’t inclusive. Council CEO Craig Richard, with whom Carlson has feuded in recent weeks, didn’t respond to Carlson’s assertions, but said his organization raises $3 million in private funds and has fulfilled its mission in bringing jobs to the region.

RELATED: Carlson wanted to go on international trips before he wanted to cut council’s funding

Several council members criticized the council’s recent name change. Until last week, it had been named the Tampa Hillsborough Economic Development Corporation. The change has been criticized by Pinellas leaders who said it damaged regional cooperation, a point reiterated by Carlson, who said Richard owed an apology to St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman.

Council member Charlie Miranda said Tampa Bay isn’t a good name for the council or any entity.

“Tampa Bay is a body of water,” Miranda said.

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