Does Tampa’s Channel District need an expanded park or a fire station?

A proposal to expand Madison Street Park ran into objections over cost and the area’s need for better fire protection.
Madison Park is seen in this image from Google Earth.
Madison Park is seen in this image from Google Earth. [ Courtesy of Google Earth ]
Published Dec. 10, 2020

TAMPA — A tiny stamp of green surrounded by towering high rises, Madison Street Park is easily overlooked in the densely packed Channel District.

But a proposal to expand the park at 1218 E. Madison St. by approximately 3/4 of an acre received close scrutiny by Tampa City Council members Thursday.

Ken Stoltenberg, a developer who is also the chairman of the Channel District’s Community Redevelopment Area’s citizen advisory committee, said the 34,125-square-foot parcel is the epitome of a scarce resource amid the cranes and towers that dominate the neighborhood’s skyline.

“This is the last piece of land available that could be used for park space,” he said.

But several council members raised questions about the possible purchase.

First, the $400 per-square-foot asking price would cost more than $13.6 million, a figure that several council members said was too high.

Others mentioned recent warnings by Tampa Fire Rescure union officials that the rapidly growing area needs a new station to ensure adequate fire protection.

Sitting as the Community Redevelopment Agency, council members also heard Deputy City Attorney Morris Massey raise possible conflict-of-interest issues with Stoltenberg’s proposal because of his financial interest in adjacent properties.

Massey said past rulings by the state ethics commission were the basis for his concerns.

Stoltenberg said his involvement in Channel District development is well known and an expanded park would benefit not only his properties but several others in the vicinity, noting 2,400 units were either occupied or planned within a short walk from the park.

“This is probably the most densely populated part of the city,” Stoltenberg said, adding that the high price for the parcel included costs not just for the land, but for the relocation of existing automotive and design businesses. “I don’t think we’ll have another shot at it.”

Council member John Dingfelder said any conflict-of-interest issues should be taken “with a grain of salt” as Stoltenberg had disclosed his ownership and the expansion would benefit the wider community.

But the price tag should be negotiated, he said.

“At the end of the day, it’s taxpayers’ money,” Dingfelder said.

Council member Orlando Gudes agreed, saying he’s frequently pointed out the high cost of city business with vendors “poking, poking, poking” to get as much as they can from municipal coffers.

The city’s Community Redevelopment Director Michelle Van Loan said the redevelopment area didn’t have enough available cash to buy the extra parkland at the current asking price. She said there was about $9.5 million available that’s not already committed to other projects in the Channel District.

Joe Citro and Luis Viera said the growing area needed better fire protection. Recently, fire union officials told council members it was becoming increasingly difficult to service the area with all the new development, including the massive $3 billion Water Street development currently under construction.

“I’d much rather there to be a fire station down there,” Citro said.

The issue of urban parks has been a frequent flash point in Tampa in recent years as a development boom has brought thousands of new residents into downtown and adjacent neighborhoods.

Last year, some residents complained about plans to open a restaurant in a small pocket park on the north side of downtown. And others raised objections to a proposal to give over parkland for a cafe at Lykes Gaslight Square Park.

Related: Tampa's contested green space

Both of those proposals are still being considered.

Negotiations are continuing with the property owner interested in the restaurant seating in Herman Massey Park and should be wrapped up in the next few weeks, said Rob Rosner, the city’s economic opportunity director.

And the Downtown Partnership remains interested in the cafe concept in Gaslight Square Park, but with additional park improvements and programming, said Shaun Drinkard, the partnership’s senior director of public programming and operations. In January, the Partnership plans to survey downtown property owners to see how they feel about the idea, which has been sidelined during the pandemic.

Council members — with Bill Carlson absent — unanimously approved city staff research the Madison Street park idea along with its suitability for a fire station.