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Redesigns with class

USF grad students draft plans on how to give the city's core some spark.

By STEVE HUETTEL, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published May 3, 2002


TAMPA -- How would you turn downtown Tampa into a place where people actually want to live, shop and hang out?

Try tearing down the Tampa Convention Center and using the prime waterfront property for a marina and high-rise condos. Or turn five square blocks along Kennedy Boulevard into a park and community gathering place.

photo
[Times photo: Fraser Hale]
Kevin Connors presents his thoughts on enhancing downtown Tampa to media representatives and city planners.
And make sure to build new housing all over: funky industrial-style lofts in the Channel District, an apartment tower on the Hillsborough River and townhouses to replace the Central Park public housing project.

Those were some of the ideas produced by 11 University of South Florida graduate students assigned to redesign downtown -- with only passing concern for political or economic realities.

"Some of the ideas are overly ambitious, idealistic," said Trent Green, an associate professor at USF's School of Architecture & Community Design who directed the project. "We believe this begins to open a dialogue on what could and should happen in downtown Tampa."

The debate over downtown's future is more than an academic exercise.

City officials have struggled to attract residential development, the first step in bringing some life to downtown after workers go home at night.

"When you leave a city, the downtown is what you remember," said Wilson Stair, the city's urban design manager. "It's like your front yard."

Tampa's front yard needs some serious work, the class concluded:

Downtown's most valuable asset, nearly 3 miles of waterfront, is mostly obscured by office buildings, hotels and public structures.

The Lee Roy Selmon Crosstown Expressway divides the central business district from the Channel District. Parks are too small and too close to streets where cars blow by at racetrack speeds.

Downtown has plenty of attractive facilities -- the Ice Palace, the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center, the Convention Center -- but no clear routes connecting them.

Green's students did case studies on cities such as Portland, Ore., and Memphis that have capitalized on their waterfront. They toured Boston during spring break. They met with Tampa officials to learn how downtown turned out the way it did and the obstacles to fixing it.

Thursday, the class presented a 25-year master plan that included generous park space, street features that slow traffic and neighborhoods in areas now filled with warehouses and vacant businesses.

A much larger convention center and a transit station for a bullet train and light rail would be near Union Station. Most of Curtis Hixon Park would be excavated for a riverfront marina flanked by a new art museum and a residential high-rise beside the city parking garage.

The Channel District would have an athletic complex and botanical garden on Ybor Channel and a park replacing railroad sidings beside the Crosstown Expressway.

Obviously, there are a few obstacles standing in the way.

The city is still paying off bonds on the current convention center. And land prices are sky high in part because Tampa hasn't limited building heights and owners think they can sell their property for office towers, said Stair, the city's urban design manager.

"You've got to balance fantasy with what reality brings," he said. "It's the politics. It's what the community wants."

But students said the plan wasn't created in a vacuum. The current convention center doesn't have room to expand and will need to grow to compete with larger venues in other cities, they said.

The group also considered wiping the Crosstown Expressway off the map, but decided the highway was too critical in bringing traffic downtown, student Chris Donnelly said.

"We struggled over the convention center and the Crosstown," he said. "We were split on bulldozing or keeping them both there."

-- Steve Huettel can be reached at huettel@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3384.

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