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Big plans that sound too good to be true

melone
MELONE
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By MARY JO MELONE

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 8, 2001


Pinch me, please.

Could it really truly cross-your-heart and stand-on-your-head be that the city of Tampa has finally gathered the will to build a cultural arts district?

A bigger art museum. A history museum. An addition to the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center. Studios where artists could do what the rest of us just dream of, give honest shape to what rises from their hearts. Theaters. Restaurants. Apartments. A place to enjoy the Hillsborough River waterfront.

Pinch me again.

They've talked about plans like this, in one form or another, for years. The story is so old it's grown a nice set of curls -- and they're beginning to turn gray.

The only thing different this time is Dick Greco, the mayor who makes the birds sing, butter melt and deals get done -- for, in this case, who knows how many millions.

I will not question the motives for it, although you hear a lot of talk about how this will make us a world-class city -- who said we had an inferiority complex? -- and some lunatic talk comparing this plan to something you'd find in Paris.

Paris, Texas, that must have been.

This will be read as a put-down. Read closer.

There's much to be said for Greco's grand ambitions, but look at what grand ambitions got St. Petersburg -- a fizzle called Bay Plaza. A couple of parking garages. Yet downtown St. Petersburg is thriving in its own campy fashion, without much of a grand design behind it. A few high rises. Many, many storefronts. You can get Thai food, a painting, a second-hand hat or a cocktail dress to die for. There's walking space. Living space. Life on a human scale.

To be sure, St. Petersburg has these things because it always had the buildings to house them. Nobody demolished so much of that funky old downtown the way they did in Tampa. Now Tampa has to build from scratch.

But can't they start small, and see where it leads?

Or would starting small mean we weren't world-class enough?

This project smacks of being another one of those refrigerators they plopped down on the waterfront, like the Florida Aquarium, the Ice Palace, the Marriott Waterside. The cultural arts district would run for about 25 acres west of Ashley Street, the main street into downtown from I-275.

Everything else in the center of downtown would be as dismal, as soulless, as before.

The pitifulness of downtown Tampa, and its other main street, the Franklin Street Mall, is cleverly disguised in those nighttime shots from the blimps during football season. They show only the nicely lit skyline, not the barren sidewalks, the streets where you could pitch a bowling ball and hit nobody.

There still is no plan to resolve this.

And it's hard to see how the arts district, any more than the Aquarium, the Garrison Seaport, the Ice Palace, the Marriott, the Convention Center, will bring life back to Polk, Cass, Morgan or Jackson streets. People visit these places and then split for home. Who wouldn't?

There's another reason for this: Hillsborough County already has a couple of other de facto downtowns: West Shore for the west side of the city, Brandon Town Centre and several industrial/office parks for the eastern suburbs, and Citrus Park Town Center for the northern suburbs. That's an awful lot for a sorry old downtown to compete with.

The arts district will go, if it goes, where it's planned because government already owns the land. There is otherwise no brilliant concept behind putting it where it ends up.

Still, the glee is general among people in this town who write, paint, sing, perform, sculpt. The first shovel of ground, for the history and art museums, may not be turned for two or three years, but finally, then, something will come along that is not marked For Jocks Only.

Finally.

Pinch me.

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