Let Kiley Garden grow

Tampa’s famed Dan Kiley-designed park gets no respect from city officials.

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Architect Taryn Sabia, co-founder of the Tampa Urban Charette, says the reason it fell into disrepute is simple.

“To put it mildly, the city didn’t take care of it,” she says, referencing the problems that were created from the earliest days of the park, when the city planted full-sized crape myrtle trees instead of the dwarf variety called for by the design, and made matters worse by adding too many (800) and never pruning them. The garden’s reflecting pools had to be removed because they leaked into the parking garage below. Though rooftop gardens were new back in the late 1980s, modern materials can now prevent that leakage.

Chris Vela with Friends of Kiley Garden agrees, saying the park’s importance has been “denigrated by poor oversight and even poorer explanations of what design means in urban planning.”

Councilwoman Mary Mulhern complains that previous administrations have never appreciated it, or other valuable landmarks that were ultimately lost. “As long as I’ve lived here, there has not been a commitment to preserving history,” she told CL while vacationing in Michigan earlier this month.

Mulhern, who worked at the Art Institute of Chicago for over a decade before moving to Tampa, championed the park in the pages of CL (then the Weekly Planet) in 2005, when she served as art critic for this paper.

“The whole point of giving it historic status is to protect it,” she said, referring to a dark moment for Kiley supporters back in 2006, when Mayor Pam Iorio had her parks and rec department cut down the overgrown crape myrtles as a prelude to a restoration project on the park.

Advocates refer to that as a “massacre.”

Taryn Sabia said that a group of young professionals, mostly from the local design community, worked on a weekly basis to upkeep the garden, and there were hopes for a tree swap to take out the mature crape myrtles.

Iorio responds that all of the trees had to be moved to fix the problem with the leaks into the underground garage. “We started taking the trees down prior to construction because the entire site had become such a hazard,” she says.

Concerns about Kiley’s future go back a decade, when in these very pages former CL Editor Susan Edwards wrote about the plans of then-Mayor Dick Greco, who became enamored with a design for a new Tampa art museum that required killing off Kiley. When architect Rafael Vinoly's design was rejected, the park was saved.

Mayor Iorio’s tearing down of more than 100 of the oversized crape myrtles in the park preceded a complete renovation of the facility, which occurred between 2008 and 2010, at the same time that two new museums were built north on Ashley Drive, with Curtis Hixon Park receiving a sparkling new renovation as well. Iorio says her order for the crape myrtles to be cut down transformed Kiley from a “neglected and hazardous eyesore to part of an overall urban transformation that has greatly enhanced the downtown core.”

Other items recently renovated include the outdoor amphitheater, paving units, runnels, structure, electrical and irrigation.

But when Historic Preservation and Urban Design Manager Fernandez went before the Council last month to advocate that local preservation status was not warranted, he listed the removal of the trees, reflecting pools, geometric pavers and benches as proof that the integrity of the park was “challenged.”

While giving praise to Dan Kiley, he also bitch-slapped his memory, saying his design of alternating squares of grass and concrete in a checkerboard pattern used “throughout the ages.”

Fernandez also said, “Opportunities are not associated with local historic listings.” And he mentioned that the tower and park share an “inseparable relationship design,” saying you can’t historically recognize the park and not the tower.

Those “opportunities” worry Kiley advocates, concerned that the city has plans for the park that they’re not telling anybody about.

There’s also the fact that Kiley’s upscale neighbor, Curtis Hixon Park, has became a focal point for events downtown, something that wasn’t the case until it was rebuilt, with the brand new Tampa Museum of Art and Glazer Children’s Museum adding to the reboot in early 2010.

Brian Funk is a board member with the Gasparilla Music Festival. He says the group respects the effort to restore Kiley Garden, but said at this point it would “frustrate a lot of the current and future programming needs of the city” to bring back the water fountains and a lot of trees. He says his group would work with the city to provide shade, but “certainly not to the extent that it’s a replication of what was there 24 years ago,” which he says the board is vehemently opposed to.

Although advocates have asked for trees to be added as a compromise, Funk adds that if it's “just a few trees, is it really Kiley Garden anymore?

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