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Cafes may be a trend in Tampa parks, but not everyone has an appetite

Two recent proposals to use public space downtown for private eateries have started a debate about the purpose of parks

TAMPA—When is a park a park? And what should take place there?

In recent weeks, downtown residents, homeless advocates and urban boosters have all weighed in on these questions and their underlying premise: When is it okay to turn over public space for private use?

Two recent proposals sparked the debate. The Tampa Downtown Partnership — with Mayor Jane Castor’s backing — advanced an idea to open a cafe at Lykes Gaslight Square Park, a shady green space in the heart of downtown. Meanwhile, a private landowner adjacent to tiny Herman Massey Park on downtown’s northern end wants to fill part of it with cafe tables and chairs where customers would be served by a restaurant in a building next door.

RELATED: Should a cafe open in downtown park?

For Tampa City Council member Joe Citro, the idea should be approached on a case-by-case basis.

Citro hasn’t made up his mind about the Herman Massey proposal. But he is more sympathetic to using an existing building next to the park to serve food rather than constructing something new on open park space.

“That’s a horse of a different color. (At Gaslight) there’s no brick and mortar business as in Massey. It’s an open field, taking away from a limited space park space,” Citro said.

The partnership’s idea met a harsh reception at City Council last week as homeless advocates railed against it, joined by several City Council members.

But Sal Ruggiero, the city’s interim administrator for neighborhood empowerment, said although details are still under discussion, the partnership’s plan is likely to move forward.

“That’s in the pulse of downtown. To revitalize that space and make it a gathering spot? I think it’s a win-win," he said.

So far, the city is taking a less decisive stance on the plans for Herman Massey. Malka Isaak, who owns a three-story building on East Tyler Street on the park’s western edge, wants to partner with the owner of several local dining spots to open an “American-style” cafe on the ground floor and a bar on the roof.

To make it work financially, Isaak and her partner, Rick Calderoni, say they’ll need dozens of tables outside in the park. Recently, a citizen panel of the Downtown Community Redevelopment Area voted to support their plan over the objections of the local neighborhood association.

Michael Avalos was the only person to vote against the plan at the citizens advisory council meeting. The vice president of the Downtown River Arts Neighborhood Association, Avalos said residents had worked on park redesign for several years before Isaak’s plan surfaced. (She has said she was never contacted by the city regarding the redesign.) Their planning had resulted in a park that met the needs of the neighborhood, he said.

The biggest issue is the use of public space for private profit,” Avalos said. “By putting a restaurant space there, it’ll be accessible to restaurant customers, but not as a public space as was intended.”

Ruggiero says the city is still weighing its options. Council members would have to approve the park redesign (in their role as the community redevelopment agency board) and any lease agreement between Isaak’s group and the city for the park space.

“We’re in listening mode," Ruggiero said.

Castor has launched a $400,000 citywide parks study, which will look at everything from reopening city pools in Seminole Heights and West Tampa to how to position the city’s parks for the next generation. Seven public meetings will be held this month and next as the city looks to hire a consultant as the master plan takes shape next year.

Kitty Lyons, executive director of Friends of Tampa Recreation, said the group hadn’t been briefed on the cafe proposals. She noted the master plan discussions were underway for the city’s 3,540 acres of parkland and 178 parks.

“We would hope this topic is being discussed with the community who has vested interest in the parks,” Lyons wrote in an email.

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