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An evening full of dreams of a real downtown

By SANDRA THOMPSON

© St. Petersburg Times, published September 30, 2000


In the lobby of the Jaeb Theater at the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center, people mingled in small groups, talking. Everyone seemed to know one another, which seemed strange because Tuesday night was not a private party but the first public workshop for the cultural arts district that in Tampa could change the meaning of the word "downtown."

The show starred three tweedy guys from Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, the urban design firm that won the contract to reconfigure downtown from a dead zone after 6 p.m. into a vibrant arts district. It was their first day on the job. They'd spent early afternoon walking around downtown in 90-plus degree heat, an eye-opener for these Chicagoans who realized, duh, heat is a factor here.

Other than that, they seemed pretty smart, and, to my mind, they said all the right things. Phil Enquist and Leigh Breslau put on a slide show of some projects they'd done in other cities and talked about what they envisioned -- so far -- for Tampa.

It went far beyond the arts and the district originally defined -- the strip along the river west of Ashley Drive from the infamous "beer can" building to the performing arts center. And the things they were talking about were much more enveloping than a new building for the Tampa Museum of Art and a history museum. It was nothing less than a downtown redesign that eventually would include residences, hotels, retail, restaurants, climate-friendly open spaces, food kiosks and book stalls. It would be a walkable downtown. It would be the urbanization of Tampa, a dream that resonates in the hearts and minds of people here who love cities.

How it will work, who will pay for it. These are questions that at this stage are not even being asked.

The arts district might be "a string of pearls that wraps around the downtown district," Breslau said, with the river as the connecting string. He noted in his mad-dogs-and-Englishmen walk Tuesday that small open spaces worked well -- people were there -- but that larger spaces were empty. He'd use shade trees and trellises. He had a slide of trellis designed by architect Frank Gehry. "You can make aggressive moves and provide a temperate environment," he said.

I'm not sure a trellis would do, even one designed by an internationally famous architect, but shade -- yes, in any form.

Enquist emphasized what he called "visual and actual access from the river to Ashley Street," which means actually seeing the river from the street -- what a concept! -- and being able to get to it. (And, FYI, City Council member Linda Saul-Sena advised from the audience that the city's awkward one-way streets may be converted to two-way.)

The district is something that will not be built in a day or a year, but Enquist likes to see "quick, early phase action projects to show visual change." That could be getting tenants for the empty buildings downtown. Art studios, film centers, art-student housing: "Artists don't want to live outside the community; they want an edgy environment."

The mayor's consultant Ron Rotella opened up the forum to the audience. It was, to some degree, all the usual suspects -- the same people who made the downtown what it is today: empty.

Many pushed their particular agenda, but several challenged the small-circle-of-friends atmosphere and called for inclusiveness.

Landscape architect David Rigall noted, "This is a small group of well-informed people. We have a lot of selling to do to the general population."

Gloria Anthony of the Tampa Chamber of Commerce suggested having future public workshops -- there will be four more of them -- at different times and different locations, "so everyone can come."

Project liaison Renee Williams wasn't crazy about that idea, but it makes sense.

Holding the meetings downtown is a Catch-22. This whole massive project is to get people downtown who don't go there now. So why hold the meetings downtown, where people won't come because there's nobody downtown?

- Sandra Thompson is a writer who lives in Tampa. City Life appears on Saturday.

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