On the Waterfront

Tampa's downtown could be a contender, instead of a bum.

click to enlarge PHOTO OP: Mayor Pam Iorio pitches the Riverwalk, framed by the minarets of the University of Tampa. - Wayne Garcia
Wayne Garcia
PHOTO OP: Mayor Pam Iorio pitches the Riverwalk, framed by the minarets of the University of Tampa.

It's hard to find a downside to Mayor Pam Iorio's emerging $40 million, 2.4-mile Riverwalk plan. She gets credit for reviving a 30-year-old vision and asking corporate supporters to raise more than half of its cost privately.

There were certainly no naysayers among the 150 or so schoolchildren, city workers and downtown suits who gathered by the banks of the Hillsborough River in Tampa last week (March 14) to kick off the Riverwalk's private fundraising effort.

Not City Councilwoman Mary Alvarez, who loves the project. Not the Tampa Tribune, which has signed on to the Friends of the Riverwalk fundraising team as media sponsor and whose deputy editorial page editor, Joe Guidry, was busy taking notes during the Riverwalk ceremony. Certainly not any of the television stations on hand, who were fed a perfectly framed shot of Iorio speaking along the banks of the river, with a deep blue sky and silver minarets as the postcard backdrop.

As nicely presented as all that was, the project is not the result of a grassroots push for opening the waterfront, despite the "project for the people and by the people" rhetoric that abounded. The Riverwalk is the result of one mayor's passion (or überpassion, as her chief cheerleader Jack Harris put it) for the plan. It demonstrates an emotional attachment and visibility that no other pressing need in the city receives.

The daily press plays along with the rah-rah, with the Tribune's next-day editorial even excoriating Hillsborough County officials for not attending this major "regional" event. The Trib didn't point out the paucity of public officials of all stripes; six of the seven city council members didn't even show. The only elected types I saw were Alvarez and former state Rep. Sandy Murman.

Only the weekly La Gaceta was willing to cast aspersions on the mayor's pet project. "It's hip," influential editor Patrick Mantegia wrote, "but in reality it will go from nowhere to nowhere and will solve no transportation problem."

Meanwhile, very little substantive improvement is going on in East Tampa, where the mayor three years ago appointed a high-profile redevelopment czar who today labors in bureaucracy and anonymity. In West Tampa, the mayor supports the concept of that neighborhood's rebirth but has left the details to factions that don't always see eye to eye on the scope of change. Take away the condo boom (which is slowing) and Tampa's economy isn't anything to write home about; the metro area that includes Hillsborough and Pinellas counties fell from the 12th best in the nation to 25th in the 2005 Milken Institute ratings of economies.

It is these kinds of examples that cause some movers-and-shakers in Tampa to privately roll their eyes whenever the Riverwalk is mentioned. Why the love and attention to the river and not show some for other opportunities to improve the city?

Iorio attributes her fondness for the Riverwalk to her days as a Temple Terrace schoolchild, walking to class each morning along the banks of the Hillsborough. "I've always loved the river," she said after her speech last week. "I've always felt the river was central to our community."

Given her vision for downtown, then, it is strange that two nationally known pieces of landscape art will fall in order to make it all happen.

One day after the hoopla for the Riverwalk, the grassroots supporters of the downtown gardens (known to landscape architecture buffs internationally as NCNB Plaza Park) designed by landscape architecture giant Dan Kiley were apoplectic and nearly in tears as two city workers with a chainsaw cut down more than 100 oversized crape myrtles. Tampa City Councilwoman Linda Saul-Sena called one of Iorio's top administrators to protest what she termed "wanton destruction."

The Friends of Kiley Park enjoy a slightly different relationship with the mayor than do the Friends of the Riverwalk. Kiley advocates met two weeks ago with top city officials to express their concern that the park's rebuilding be done with preservation guidelines in mind. They also discussed their desire to save the crape myrtles and resell them to raise money for the preservation effort. One Friends of Kiley Gardens board member had even contacted a tree broker about such a fundraiser. "At this meeting," wrote Friends Vice President Rachel Rodgers, "the mayor's staff committed to work with our group on this important project."

Standing among the fallen trees less than two weeks later, Friends member Anne Vela felt differently. "I feel like I was given a big 'F you'" by the city, Vela said.

Other Friends of Kiley Gardens members were more circumspect, acknowledging that the crape myrtles had to be removed anyway. The city's official explanation was that the park would not support the heavy trucks that would have been required to dig up the trees with root balls intact.

The fate of Kiley Gardens remains murky. It certainly will never be returned to its inaugural state of 1988, with reflecting pools, fountains and channels. Iorio has pledged to rebuild some of the park as a tribute to Kiley's design.

If you are a purist, that means Kiley Gardens is historically dead.

Kiley certainly doesn't fit into the Iorio model of low-risk; restoring it would cost a fortune in city dollars; it apparently does not enjoy support from the neighboring building owner; it is costing millions to fix the parking garage where the park leaked; and the public is almost entirely unaware and unimpressed by the landscape architectural masterpiece.

Kiley Gardens won't be the only bit of landscaping-as-art under the gun in the new downtown Tampa. Iorio's speech for the Riverwalk took place right in the middle of another piece of nationally-known-but-locally-ignored art, the Time Landscape project of Earth Art purist Alan Sonfist. The park is meant to demonstrate the city's landscape and uses through history, with its walkways tracing the outlines of red maple, turkey oak, live oak and orange leaves.

Sonfist's best-known work is a like-titled piece in Greenwich Village that reinstalled an urban forest with pre-colonial plants.

Like Kiley's landscaping art, Sonfist's design for Curtis Hixon Park (described by one local art critic as "interesting" but "useless") will undergo alteration, and again like Kiley's it is not exactly clear how much (if any) of the original will remain. The Riverwalk plans released by the city last week showed a restaurant being built inside the northern edge of the park; the Tampa Children's Museum covering Sonfist's entryway along Ashley Drive; and Curtis Hixon in total as a "park in design" — by another well-known landscape architect, New York's Thomas Balsley.

Political Whore can be reached by e-mail at [email protected] or by telephone at 813-739-4805. You can read more political commentary and breaking news on the Planet's blog, www.blurbex.com.

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