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Taming Bayshore

The sidewalk teems with walkers, joggers and bikers - right alongside cars that are speeding down the road.

By SUSAN THURSTON and RICK GERSHMAN
© St. Petersburg Times
published April 12, 2002


photo
[Times photo: Stefanie Boyar]
Bayshore Beautiful resident Greg Tennant takes his 2-year-old son, Seth, and their golden retriever, Shelby, for a walk along Bayshore Boulevard.
Dog walker Terri Lovely wants separate lanes for bikers and pedestrians.

Jogger Christian Geier wants more water fountains.

Skater Carol Keller's idea? Speed limit signs along the sidewalk.

The role of Tampa's Bayshore Boulevard has been the talk of the town since it was built in the 1930s. It's arguably the city's most popular strip of land, favored alike by zippy Porsches and plucky pedestrians.

"Bayshore is a gem," says Keller, who lives and works nearby.

"We're really fortunate to have it."

But could it be better?

That's a question that nags at some observers. They watch a kinetic parade of baby carriages and SUVs, of dog leashes and Rollerblades, of minivans and joggers, seldom slowed by the order of traffic lights. And they wonder what will happen as Tampa gets more crowded.

Many people accept Bayshore the way it is, relishing the water and downtown vistas.

But some see a need for improvements to the road, the grassy medians and the sidewalk.

"It would be good to have one lane for bladers and bikers and one lane for runners and walkers," says Malcolm Bowden, 29, who enjoys exercising along Bayshore.

Randy Burns, a daily blader who took a serious spill on the sidewalk two years ago when a startled dog lunged at him, prefers a simpler approach:

Jogger Christian Geier says he wants more water fountains.
"Put up a sign that says, "Use common sense.' "

Over the years, neighbors and city officials have struggled to accommodate diverse interests. But it hasn't been easy. Usage keeps going up. And money doesn't always follow.

About six years ago, a group of citizens appointed by the City Council spent a year studying ways to improve the safety, design and appearance of Bayshore from Platt Street to Gandy Boulevard.

They surveyed residents.

They researched similar parks in other cities.

They studied the patterns of Bayshore's users.

They gathered statistics.

They met for hours.

In the end, the 12-person committee, called the Bayshore Boulevard Task Force, came up with nearly three dozen suggestions. Ideas ranged from installing pedestrian crossing signs at major intersections to adding 1920s-style lighting along the sidewalk.

The fancy artist's renderings, modeled partly after New York's Central Park, showed separate bike lanes, trees along the grassy strip and benches that face the water, not the street and garbage cans.

Ceremoniously, the committee presented its findings to the City Council in April 1996. Despite big expectations, the city adopted only a few of the recommendations, including "no parking" signs on the median and "no left turns" at some intersections.

Malcolm Bowden enjoys exercising along Bayshore.
Much of the report just collected dust. Most of the council members no longer serve.

Task force chairman Warren Weathers, a regular user of Bayshore, says the report didn't seem to get anyone's attention. (Weathers is Hillsborough County's chief deputy property appraiser and an occasional cartoonist for City Times.)

"I don't think there was the political will," he says. "They said, "Thank you. We'll do a few things, but we don't have the funds to do them all.' "

Committee member Sue Lyon, a 10-year Bayshore Beautiful resident, calls the outcome disappointing and frustrating. In hindsight, she wishes the group had put more pressure on the city to follow through.

"We thought they were going to do something," she says. "I learned from that -- that you don't get what you expect." Lyon, president of the Bayshore Beautiful homeowners association, has fought for years to add pedestrian crossings, but met little success. Her neighborhood abutts Bayshore from Gandy to El Prado boulevards, making it part of a daily regimen for many residents.

Getting across Bayshore requires a mad dash, especially during rush.

"I do it every morning, and I take my life into my own hands every time," she says.

Traffic heading into downtown from Gandy gets the green light the whole way, promoting fast driving.

The association periodically hires an off-duty police officer to cite speeders along Bayshore. Motorists routinely disobey the 40 mph speed limit, often reaching 60 or 70 mph on the straight-aways. Some get tickets for going 80.

Speeding has been a constant problem along Bayshore, which is owned by the county but maintained by the city.

Factor in pedestrians, children and blatant carelessness, and the linear park can get downright dangerous.

A few years ago, council member Bob Buckhorn proposed the city block off lanes closest to the water to traffic on weekends. He thought that might encourage pedestrian use and improve safety.

His proposal proved too difficult from a transportation standpoint, he says.

Besides, he wonders, where would all the people park?

One neighborhood association, Hyde Park Preservation Inc., contacted the city several months ago to ask for pedestrian crossings and, possibly, a traffic light at Rome Avenue.

"Without a light, cars aren't going to slow down on Bayshore. They're used to stopping at only certain places," says Anna Thomas, association president.

[Times photo: Stefanie Boyar]
Hyde Park residents Anne McConaughey and Val Maltese wait for a break in traffic to cross Bayshore Boulevard after an evening of inline skating. Many people who walk, skate and bike along Bayshore Boulevard think the city should install pedestrian crosswalks.
At least 37,000 cars a day drive on Bayshore, based on figures from the 1996 report. More accidents happen north of Howard than to the south, although none of the intersections appear high on the city's list of top crash sites.

Most are near misses.

City officials say safety remains a top concern, especially north of Rome where the wide, grassy median becomes a narrow, concrete strip. They plan to explore some improvements in the next few months and circulate them to residents for review, says Elton Smith, the city's transportation manager.

Smith said the city will likely have some federal money available for Bayshore starting in 2004.

The money, he says, could pay to add a bike lane alongside Bayshore's swanky mansions. It might also fund pedestrian crossings.

Avid bicyclists say bring it on.

"The sidewalk isn't a choice as far as I'm concerned. It's already overused," says Jim Fleming, chairman of a county Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Committee.

"It's fine for bicyclists who want to go out for a nice, easy ride, but you're conflicting with joggers, walkers and bladers."

Adding a bike lane tops the committee's wish list for Bayshore, he says. The city installed a lane next to the waterfront sidewalk several years ago, but lacks one on the other side.

A southbound bike lane would lure traffic off the sidewalk, Fleming predicts. Although many casual bicyclists like the sidewalk's relative safety, professional pedalers prefer the bike-only lanes, he says.

Fleming's committee also wants the city to reduce the number of traffic lanes from six to four between Platt and Rome. It would create more room for recreation and discourage freeway-like driving.

The last major work along Bayshore was done in the early 1990s at a cost of about $9.3-million. The project added the grassy strip between the waterfront sidewalk and the road, created the bicycle lane and repaired the sidewalk and ornamental balustrade.

Recently, the city pulled out the median landscaping, refreshed the dirt and installed new plants. It had been eight to 10 years and many of the plants had died or withered, said Karla Price, a landscape architect for the parks department.

Frequent users of Bayshore say the changes have made the 4.3-mile route a favorite destination for residents and tourists alike. Few challenge its unsubstantiated title as the world's longest continuous sidewalk.

"It's one of the great resources of Tampa," said Sol Fleischman, whose mother pushed him in a carriage along Bayshore when he was a child.

"It's a social occasion when you go out on Bayshore. You always see people you know."

-- Researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Susan Thurston can be reached at 226-3394 or thurston@sptimes.com.

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