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Students are natural resource for new ideas

Architecture students at USF have been enlisted to design a tower that will restore the McKay Bay Nature Park view.

Published October 3, 2003

When the city built a pavilion at McKay Bay Nature Park a few years ago, it offered bird lovers easy access to the sweetest of sights: mud flats stretching beyond a line of mangroves, teeming with flocks of wading birds.

But after several mild winters that allowed mangroves and Brazilian pepper to thrive, the once-spectacular view has been replaced by an impenetrable wall of plants.

To fix the problem, the city can "either trim a bunch of mangroves, which is a bad idea, or raise the viewing platform," said Julie Sternfels, a naturalist with the city's parks and recreation department.

To find a solution, the city has turned to 20 architecture graduate students from the University of South Florida. The students, who visited the site last Friday, are competing with each other to design a tower that will allow sightseers to once again gaze upon the glory of the mud flats.

"The advantage with the students' work is you get 20 different solutions to one problem," said professor Michael Halflants, the students' studio instructor. The city "will get a wide range of options, absolutely."

The tower must be tall enough to rise above the mangroves, with the standing platform about 30 feet in the air, and strong enough to support a small group of people. City officials envision an observation area about 15 feet square. Their budget is in the $10,000 to $20,000 range.

"The plan is to get this back to its intended use," said Brad Suder, a city landscape architect.

The 40-acre park is a mecca for bird watchers. The hard-core among them will hike to other places within the park to steal glimpses of snowy egrets and roseate spoonbills, but no place beats the pavilion for convenience, Suder said. The tower will be built next to it.

Wheelabrator McKay Bay, which runs the waste-to-energy plant next to the park, is offering a $500 award for the best design.

A panel of judges will review the students' ideas Wednesday and select a winner. The students will work on construction plans next semester. If the city finds money in next year's budget, the tower will be built in late 2004 or early 2005, Suder said.

USF hopes to play a role in other city design projects.

Last summer, Halflants' students crafted plans for a park and library near the Sulfur Springs pool in central Tampa and redesigned a future Main Street for planners in Sarasota. Other USF architecture students will travel to Havana in the spring to help the Cuban government draw up redevelopment plans for a neighborhood overlooking a harbor.

Halflants' pitch to Tampa: Use us.

"We're a resource that's right here," he said.

- Ron Matus can be reached at 226-3405 or

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