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Critics: Museum design a good fit?

Some art community leaders ask whether the high-trellised structure is compatible with a cultural district master plan.

By BABITA PERSAUD, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published August 20, 2002

TAMPA -- When architect Rafael Vinoly unveiled his design for the new Tampa Museum of Art in June, it was seen as the first bold step toward a new Cultural Arts District downtown. But now, some figures in the local art community aren't so sure Vinoly has set the city on the right path.

"Where's the shops and cafes?" asked Art Keeble, director of the Arts Council of Hillsborough County.

"What's being done to make Ashley Drive a grand boulevard, like the public wanted?" asked Sandy Rief, a trustee with the Frank E. Duckwall Foundation.

The master plan for a 28-block Cultural Arts District drawn up in 2001 included components beyond museums that would pull people downtown: shops and cafes along the Hillsborough River, a lush park, a pedestrian-friendly Ashley Drive lined with palm trees.

Now, art leaders wonder if Vinoly's $52-million Tampa Museum of Art fits within that vision, and if the city administration has lost some of its enthusiasm for the master plan.

The art museum "needs to be part of the district that is consistent with the overall plan," said Rief.

His foundation donated $235,000 toward the cost of the plan developed by Chicago urban designers Skidmore, Owings & Merrill after a series of public workshops.

"I want the arts district to be developed how those people who attended the meetings wanted," Rief said. "They represented the community as a whole."

For example, he said, Vinoly's vision of a 100-foot-tall metal trellis-like "urban canopy" over the new art museum and extending into the middle of Ashley Drive doesn't make the busy street pedestrian-friendly.

"To me, those columns in the middle of the street don't do anything," said Rief. "I would much rather see more crepe myrtles planted. Widen the pedestrian median in the middle of the street so once you got there, you wouldn't have to take your life in your hands trying to cross the street."

Vinoly has been contracted by the city to also design the back yard of the museum, which will lead down to the Hillsborough River, but Rief wonders when the public will see those plans. He notes that the arts district's most visible champion -- Mayor Dick Greco -- is leaving office early next year.

"It would be nice to see all that now," said Rief of the plans.

Keeble, with the arts council, also has questions about the metal grid canopy. "How is it going to keep the sun off people?" he wondered.

George Howell, a trustee at the Tampa Bay History Center, said he doesn't want the canopy's support columns obstructing the proposed history center, which would sit alongside the art museum.

"I wouldn't want them to be planted in the area that might be designated for future expansion," he said.

The art museum's design is still a work in process, said Emily Kass, the museum's director.

"There is probably no building in the world in which the initial concept stays the same as the final product," she said. "It's like going from a sketch to a painting."

The concerns of art leaders were brought up at last month's meeting of the Cultural District Stakeholders -- a group of about 35 art and downtown leaders. The same issues resurfaced at this month's meeting.

Ron Rotella, special consultant to Mayor Greco, said sticking to everything in the Skidmore, Owings & Merrill master plan is not practical. It was only a wish list, he said, and already some parts have been put on the back burner: the lagoon on the Hillsborough River and the footbridge to the University of Tampa, for example.

The arts district will take years, he said. And right now, it's early, with lots of money still to be raised.

The Tampa History Museum Center has yet to raise $11-million privately before the Hillsborough County Commission will give it $17-million. So far, $9-million has been pledged.

Even the Museum of Art has to find $25-million privately. The city is contributing $27-million from the Community Investment Tax.

"I don't think anybody should assume that the city has the funding to implement that entire plan," Rotella said of the Cultural Arts District.

Since Vinoly's design was unveiled in June, museum officials have been working closely with his team. Most of the focus has been on the museum's interior, Kass said.

But soon, attention will turn to the exterior, Kass said. And the urban canopy roof.

In preparation, Vinoly's team has conducted preliminary sun and shade analysis to see whether the temperature underneath the canopy can be lowered by 10 to 15 degrees, as Vinoly had promised.

Kass said the public shouldn't expect drastic changes to Vinoly's initial design, because "the feedback we've been getting has been incredibly positive."

But some tweaking might be in order.

The length and width of the canopy, the materials in it -- that is all being decided, she said.

She said the museum does fit into the overall master plan for the Cultural Arts District, allowing for a museum store on Ashley Drive, as well as a cafe.

Other shops and cafes will come as the district is developed and Vinoly's plans for the park behind the museum unfold, Kass said.

"You can't have those without having a museum first," she said. "Really, people have to take a long view."

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