TAMPA — A plan to allow a private property owner to occupy part of a tiny downtown park with cafe seating for a proposed restaurant has cleared a major obstacle.
Tampa City Council members, sitting as board members of the city’s Community Redevelopment Agency, approved a request to reopen the mostly-complete redesign of Herman Massey Park on the northern edge of downtown.
The vote represents the latest development in Tampa of requests from private entities to take over portions of the city’s green space for profitable use. The Tampa Downtown Partnership recently proposed opening a cafe with seating on part of Lykes Gaslight Square Park in the heart of downtown.
The recent move was to accommodate the owner of a building bordering the park, who plans to open a restaurant and bar.
Malka Isaak and her business partner, Rick Calderoni, who owns the Green Iguana among other establishments, say they need a few dozen tables on the western edge of the park for customers, a plan that has divided neighbors.
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At a Dec. 12 redevelopment agency board meeting, some residents welcomed the idea as a way to improve security and cleanliness in the half-acre park plagued in the past with homelessness and crime.
“Right now, it’s just a toilet. It’s a toilet for dogs,” said Sam Smith, who recently moved into a building near the park on Franklin and Tyler streets. " I don’t understand how that’s going to change anything just because it’s been made pretty for a couple of years."
Others opposed the idea, saying years of community input on how to remake the park with space for two dog parks and areas for community events would be unnecessarily delayed by Isaak’s request. They questioned if the restaurant would ever open.
“We still don’t see a truly positive reason to stop the process that has been started and stop the progress that has been made,” said Michael Avalos, vice president of the Downtown River Arts Neighborhood Association.
Isaak’s proposal surfaced this fall after planners and residents had collaborated in a series of public meetings since 2017 on the park’s redesign. She said she had not been notified of the meetings, which city planners have disputed. By the time she asked the city to pause the process, the park redesign was about 90 percent completed, planners have said.
Last month, Isaak and Calderoni presented their idea of cafe seating to the Downtown Community Redevelopment Area’s citizen advisory committee, which voted to support exploring the cafe concept.
Since then, the Downtown River Arts Neighborhood Association has implored council members to proceed with the original plan, which locates a dog park next to Isaak’s building. The smell and noise would hurt her building’s value, she said.
Council members mostly sided with Isaak. Only Joseph Citro voted against the cafe plan, although John Dingfelder was absent for the vote.
Since they were sitting as the community redevelopment agency, the council members voted to recommend reopening the design process to City Council. Essentially, they recommended approving the change to themselves.
Isaak has agreed to pay the $89,000 cost of the redesign, which city planners say will delay the park’s makeover by six to eight months.
Victor DiMaio, a consultant representing Isaak, said she and Calderoni planned to invest around $2.5 million to refurbish the building, which dates to 1901. It’s been vacant for about 20 years after Cutro’s Music Store closed.
They’ve applied for historical preservation protection and plan to allow park visitors to use the building’s bathrooms whether or not they are restaurant customers. Additional cafe-style seating also will be available for non-restaurant customers.
“We’re going to try to reach some sort of compromise or consensus to see how we can move forward,” DiMaio said Monday.
Editor’s Note: The original version of the story had an incorrect vote total. The vote was 5-1 with John Dingfelder absent for the vote.