In Tampa, a touch of St. Pete green space envy

Tampa has some cool downtown views of the water; it's just hard to see them.

Published October 13, 2005

I admit it. I'm jealous of downtown St. Pete.

Sometimes on a weekend morning, we'll drive across the bridge from our home in Tampa to walk along the water there. St. Pete has all that generous green space, the shady trees, the boats, the people - actual people, out and about, running, walking their dogs, sitting at outdoor tables with their coffee and their newspapers.

Downtown Tampa on the weekend, you can pretty much see the tumbleweeds blow by. Some weekend mornings, we ride our bikes past the tall, quiet buildings and never see a pedestrian. Yes, we in Tampa are proud of our beautiful stretch of Bayshore Boulevard to the south, where we jog and skate along the water. But it's not the same as a lively, charming downtown where people don't just work, they live and play.

Truth is, we have some pretty cool downtown views of the water ourselves, what with the Hillsborough River curving through to the bay. It's just hard to see them.

You might catch a glimpse during intermission at the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center, but only if you wander out behind the building, where the river flows past. Or you could brave the all-but-abandoned walkway behind the art museum to look across the water at the glorious minarets of the University of Tampa.

Tampa Water Works Park near Interstate 275 is one of the prettiest slices of green in the city, but I've never seen more than one person at a time there, usually a worker snoozing in his truck.

You can get a waterside perch at a small outdoor bar at Channelside and watch up close as the cruise ships load up and sail out. Or you can try to find a spot somewhere along the river to see rowers glide under bridges painted bright with the slogans of visiting colleges.

But you've really got to try.

The good news is that Mayor Pam Iorio has made a priority of plans for a signature Riverwalk, a 21/2-mile ribbon of path along the east bank from Tampa Heights to the Florida Aquarium. It's supposed to be a green-space and public art haven for joggers, cyclists and those who just want to hang out, a connector to restaurants, retail and attractions. The concept of opening up the river to the people has been around since disco, but this mayor wants as much as possible finished by the time we get Super Bowl 2009.

The timing is right, given the amazing amount of planned residential construction around downtown - and by the way, who are all these people plunking down serious money for these condos and lofts? Well, it doesn't matter. There are signs of life. Even a lone woman walking a dog downtown this week gave me hope.

There's been some interesting possibilities talked about for the Riverwalk, like floating boardwalks and farmer's markets. As a practical matter, I say we should:

* Ditch those tiny, torturous leaf-shaped benches at Curtis Hixon Park, an artist's idea of a bench, not one you'd actually sit on.

* Provide as much shade as possible. The bald, open space of Curtis Hixon was half the reason we didn't go there.

* Push for that retail/restaurant element. A quiet Riverwalk for runners is nice; a Riverwalk alive with shops and cafes later in the day is even better.

This week I walked around a completed piece of the Riverwalk that faces Harbour Island. It had art, informative plaques, a playground, curving paths and legions of benches. Charming but empty. For now.

Another chunk just north of the planned Trump Tower Tampa (does this still sound as unbelievable to you as it does to me?) has fresh-planted trees and benches that face both the river and the city's high-rises. I saw the most amazing sights there: a couple holding hands walking toward the water, a woman relaxed on a bench with her face turned to the sun. Even the brand-spanking new garbage cans were full.

It was like one of those architect renderings of what a park by the water is supposed to look like. It was almost like St. Pete.

-- Sue Carlton can be reached at carlton@sptimes.com