Tampa braces for stream of traffic to new mall
By JEAN HELLER
© St. Petersburg Times,
TAMPA -- The merchandise will be the same a week later.
The glitter and ambience aren't going to disappear.
But for some people, nothing will suffice but being present, on the scene, at the moment International Plaza opens for business. Or within hours thereafter.
So despite all the brainstorming, planning and preparation that went into making the mall's first weekend as smooth as possible for area traffic, city and mall officials are not sanguine that the opening on Friday, or the weekend that follows, will be completely glitch-free.
Not only will thousands be crowding in for an early look at the upscale mall hunkered at the south end of Tampa International Airport, thousands more might be on the same streets streaming toward sporting events at Raymond James Stadium that weekend.
The status of two games was still uncertain in the wake of Tuesday's terrorist attacks on the United States. The University of South Florida said Wednesday it will play its Saturday evening game if its opponents can get here from Utah. The National Football League was expected to announce today whether the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and other teams will play on Sunday.
Aj Jemison, manager of International Plaza, said traffic planning has been a challenge, but she thinks all bases are covered.
"One of the good things about opening on a Friday is that people will already be at work by 10 (a.m.), and the kids will be in school," she said.
"Saturday shouldn't be a problem because that whole area is mostly business and will be shut down for the weekend. The Bulls' game isn't until 7 Saturday night, and it doesn't draw huge crowds. Beside, most mall business is usually done for the day by then."
The bigger challenge, Jemison said, will be the Bucs on Sunday.
"We open at noon, and the Bucs game is at 1," Jemison said. "The game draws lots of tailgaters who will be at the stadium by the time we open. If there's going to be a problem, it will happen about 4:30 or so when everybody is leaving the stadium and lots of people are leaving the mall before the 6 p.m. close."
The mall, the city of Tampa and its police department, Hillsborough County and the Florida Department of Transportation have worked for months to come up with ways to manage traffic.
"We'll be working that whole weekend, coordinating the police," said Debbie Herrington, Tampa's traffic engineer. "We'll have people in a command center to retime traffic lights to deal with backups. We will have eight electronic message boards to guide people away from problem spots. We may use a police helicopter for a better overall look, and if we can't get a helicopter, we'll station people on rooftops."
There are some snarls that can't be avoided, Herrington said, particularly late on weekday afternoons.
"You've got all the business traffic already leaving the West Shore area, plus the backups westbound on the interstate," she said. "The afternoon peak will always be a challenge."
Terri Fox, director of marketing and membership support for the Westshore Alliance, said she hopes the mall's peak traffic will be on weekends when area businesses are closed.
"Everybody's doing a wait-and-see," Fox said of the alliance's 380 members. "Transportation is our membership's No. 1 concern, and people are wondering if things are going to change, but I haven't heard a lot of serious concern."
Officials say the best way for motorists to deal with the traffic on opening weekend at International Plaza is to plan ahead, whether they're going to the mall, to the airport, to work, or to the stadium. That means knowing the mall hours (10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Saturday and noon to 6 p.m. on Sunday) and avoiding the area during the peak arrival and departure rushes.
It means heeding the electronic messages advising which routes to take. There are four entrances to International Plaza, from West Shore Boulevard, from Manhattan Avenue, from Lois Avenue and from Columbus Drive.
"The natural inclination is to take West Shore, but we're going to be directing people to Lois, because it dead-ends in the mall parking lot," said Jemison. West Shore Boulevard is also the location of the mall's nearest competitor, WestShore Plaza.
"We expect the most underused entrance will be Manhattan Avenue, until we decide to press it into service by having police redirect traffic over there."
Approaching the mall from I-275, officials suggest you avoid West Shore, especially during weekday business hours, and take Lois or Manhattan.
Avoid Dale Mabry, especially if there is an event at the stadium. But if you are already on Dale Mabry, take Columbus Drive west to the mall.
From the Courtney Campbell Parkway, the Veterans Expressway, Eisenhower Boulevard and Memorial Highway, take Spruce Street east.
For those who have problems negotiating the streets during the first weekend, off-duty police officers, privately paid, will be distributed throughout neighborhoods surrounding the mall, and others will be ready to act as rovers, going where they are needed.
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Mary Jo Melone