With her new look for downtown's cultural arts district, Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio could reverse the biggest urban design mistake the city ever made. The centerpiece is still a new fine arts museum, at Ashley Drive where the existing facility sits. But Iorio wants to open up three city blocks that surround the site, clearing the way for a sweeping park that maximizes the beauty of the downtown riverfront. The layout is clean, pedestrian-friendly and conducive to the broader goal of building a viable downtown neighborhood.
Residential downtown has not taken off for many reasons. Downtown is dull and lacks an attractive place to gather. That's why the new arts museum is so important: Beyond its cultural contribution and value to the local tourism industry, the museum could become the focal point of a functional neighborhood. The design is not only an aesthetic issue, it also is a factor in whether more than $100-million in public and private investment can change the character of downtown Tampa.
Iorio is considering three changes. She would have the proposed history center move from the arts campus to another downtown site. She would demolish the Poe garage to the north and seek to relocate a residential tower the previous mayor and city council had agreed to have on the site. All three ideas are good ones. The history center would benefit from having a larger tract closer to south downtown. And removing the garage and tower would dramatically open the riverfront space.
Removing this clutter and revealing the waterfront would be a step toward correcting the planning mistakes officials made many years ago. Why would any city clog its waterfront with multistory abominations of concrete and steel? Iorio's plan would return the riverfront to public view and use. For the arts district to succeed, residents and visitors will need something more than a two-hour museum experience. An open park, surrounded by shops, restaurants and entertainment venues, would be more pleasant than the boxy configuration first proposed, and more accommodating for public events.
The drawbacks are minor by comparison. The city would need to replace the Poe garage with parking underground and withdraw the residential tower plan in favor of housing near Ashley. These goals are worth pursuing. The city has only one chance to move ahead with the right design. Bringing the waterfront more fully into the backdrop would enhance the arts district's urban feel - and that's the point, isn't it?