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Heads butt on Ashley changes

Some say the city's plan for a more walkable street stops short.

By MIKE BRASSFIELD
Published July 13, 2007


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TAMPA - Remaking Ashley Drive is turning out to be complicated.

Two factions are debating the future of this major thoroughfare on the western edge of downtown, and they agree on only one thing: Ashley could be attractive and inviting, but right now the street looks crummy.

The city is planning a major renovation of Ashley to make it more pedestrian friendly while also creating what officials call "an iconic vehicular gateway to downtown Tampa." Right there you've got two competing interests: pedestrians and cars.

The city intends to remove one of the northbound traffic lanes, widen the sidewalks and medians, make the pedestrian crossings shorter, and beautify the whole thing with decorative landscaping and a canopy of shade trees.

The debate is about whether the city is going far enough. Some, like Taryn Sabia, want to eliminate a southbound and a northbound lane to make downtown more walkable and livable.

"A few blocks of trees and wider medians won't be enough to change the perspective of people entering the city," said Sabia, a graduate architect and co-founder of a nonprofit "urban planning collective" called the Urban Charrette. "This plan puts a Band-Aid on an issue that will still be there."

But city and state transportation officials worry that taking away a southbound lane will cause gridlock and back up traffic onto Interstate 275.

So on one hand you have a dissatisfied assortment of downtown activists, architects, arts supporters and urban designers saying, Can't we think bigger? Can't we aim higher? Do we have to settle for this?

On the other hand you have municipal bureaucrats saying, This is what we have the money and the ability to do, and it's something concrete that will make a difference.

- - -

Big changes have already started.

On the west side of Ashley, the city and other donors will pour tens of millions into a new art museum and a children's museum, both to open in 2009; a long-planned Riverwalk; and an expanded waterfront park that Mayor Pam Iorio has described as "Tampa's Central Park."

Downtown residents will live in condo high-rises east of Ashley. SkyPoint, 32 stories of bright blue glass, is finished. Next to it, construction cranes have started on Element, 34 stories. At least two more are planned for that immediate area.

Yet crossing Ashley on foot can be daunting because it's wide and the traffic is fast. The goal is to make Ashley more of a bridge between the two sides.

At a public forum two weeks ago, city officials painted a pretty picture of what Ashley will look like in the six blocks between Tyler Street and Kennedy Boulevard:

One less lane of traffic. A wider sidewalk on the east side, with room for outdoor cafes. On-street parking. Lush landscaping, decorative planters, trash bins and benches.

The plan got a cool reception from a crowd of about 70 people.

"We've got a patient with cancer, and we're talking about the cosmetics," said retired South Tampa architect Gus Paras, a member of the city's Architectural Review Commission. "The problem is larger. What's going to happen when the interstate is 10 lanes instead of four, and three times as many cars are spilling off into downtown?"

City Council member Linda Saul-Sena and others in the crowd urged city officials to think bigger. Make the six-lane street four lanes wide, they said. When cars pour off the interstate into downtown, find a way to funnel them elsewhere, like Tampa Street or maybe Doyle Carlton Drive.

Someone suggested getting rid of the Ashley Street off-ramp entirely.

That's not realistic, answered David Vaughn, director of the city's contracts administration department, which is handling the project.

The Florida Department of Transportation won't go for that, Vaughn said. "They've done about a billion dollars worth of work" on I-275's interchanges with downtown and I-4, he said.

As for funneling more traffic onto one-way Tampa Street, a document that's known in downtown circles as "the Kittelson report" may put the kibosh on that.

A traffic study done by Fort Lauderdale transportation engineering firm Kittelson & Associates concludes that within six years, traffic jams from an overloaded Ashley Drive and Tampa Street will back up onto I-275 and lead to downtown gridlock.

It predicts that the downtown street grid will be overwhelmed by a 40 percent increase in vehicles that will come with more than 10,000 new condos and an influx of shops and offices. It says the growth will cause gridlock whether Ashley is six lanes wide or four. The Kittelson report has many critics, including the Tampa Downtown Partnership, which contests its findings and argues that the traffic study is too narrow and simplistic.

- - -

The city's current plan for Ashley Drive is expected to cost $3-million to $5-million. Two days after the public forum about the plan, the city laid off 121 employees, including its transportation manager.

Vaughn, the city's contracts administrator, said the city will hold two more public hearings before deciding on a final plan by next summer. He wasn't surprised that the plan had gotten a chilly reception.

"It's not like this has never happened before," Vaughn said. "Certainly this is not the first time we've ever had a project where the wishes and the desires exceed the reality of the funding."

He thinks the two sides aren't too far apart and some changes to the plan might help, although eliminating another traffic lane isn't likely.

"If we can't remove one of the southbound lanes, maybe in off-peak hours it becomes on-street parking," he said.

He predicts that construction won't start until after the Super Bowl in January 2009. "If we were to start in fall of '08, we would have a royal mess just in time for the game," he said.

- - -

Ultimately, everyone involved dreams of a more vibrant version of a downtown that's known for its office towers, parking lots and deserted after-hours streets.

Graduate architect Adam Fritz, another founder of the Urban Charrette group, says the city should think bigger.

"Curtis Hixon Park can be the living room for the whole city," he said. "The park, Ashley, the Riverwalk - they can be the nexus."

Judy Lisi, chief executive officer of the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center, notes that 700,000 people come to TBPAC each year - and after shows they promptly leave.

"Ashley Drive says, 'You're supposed to leave. You're not supposed to stay here,' " she said. "We shouldn't stop until we get the best Ashley Drive we can."

Mike Brassfield can be reached at 813 226-3435 or brassfield@sptimes.com.

[Last modified July 12, 2007, 08:41:13]


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