Space Chases

Kiley Park's not the only endangered public space getting attention these days.

click to enlarge STILL HERE: The Belleview Biltmore. - VALERIE TROYANO
STILL HERE: The Belleview Biltmore.

Tampa Bay has seen its share of battles over environmentally sensitive land. Hillsborough County commissioners were forced to nix plans for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to build a practice facility on 70 acres of land off Morris Bridge Road in 2002. Environmental advocates continue to battle an east-west connector road in New Tampa that would link I-275 to Bruce B. Downs Boulevard and I-75 by cutting through the sensitive Cypress Creek Preserve wetlands. A new mega-mall planned for the corner of I-75 and State Road 52 in Pasco County draws complaints about its impact on wetlands, although Hillsborough County Commissioner Kathy Castor is the only public official to speak out against it so far.

But the fight for NationsBank Park Plaza is different. It's not about saving a large swath of undeveloped land out in the 'burbs or pristine forests and wetlands. It's about a public space in an already urbanized and developed area. And it's not the only such space under dispute. As densities grow throughout Tampa Bay, as residents return to downtown living in St. Petersburg and Tampa, the importance of public spaces is growing. Controversies - like the three listed below - will continue to surface.

"Are we losing public space?" asks Tampa City Council member Linda Saul-Sena. "That is a really important question."

BayWalk's SidewalkIn St. Petersburg, the owners of BayWalk have approached city officials about taking ownership of the sidewalk on the southern face of the entertainment and retail center along Second Avenue S. BayWalk, it seems, is tired of the regular anti-war protests on that sidewalk, saying they are unsafe and hurting business.

In response, members of St. Pete for Peace have decided to up their protests from twice a month to once a week, gathering every Saturday at BayWalk from 7 to 9 p.m. Ironically, the protests had been winding down until word came that BayWalk wanted to own the sidewalk.

"It's the public's space," said James Marvin of St. Pete for Peace. "It's the public's right of way. Why should that be given over to a corporation?"

Marvin said the protest location was chosen not to target BayWalk, but because that center has become a de facto town hall.

"What BayWalk does is, it serves as really the main public commons in St. Petersburg," Marvin said. "That sidewalk should be an open public forum for anyone who wants to come out and say something. [With the advent of the Internet,] we've lost that access to person-to-person contact."

While BayWalk has talked with city officials about taking ownership of the sidewalk, St. Petersburg zoning official John Hixenbaugh confirmed that the center's developer, The Sembler Co., has not applied for permission to do so.

Davis & GoliathOn Davis Islands, members of the local civic association fought tooth-and-nail to preserve a waterfront slice of Marjorie Park after Tampa General Hospital said it needed the .4-acre parcel for a parking garage. The association e-mailed "Save Our Waterfront Park" fliers to other civic activists and pressured Tampa City Council members to keep the sliver of land, even though it was mostly used by hospital employees and its visitors.

"The value of waterfront green space in an urban area is priceless," wrote Steve Stanley, president of the Davis Islands Civic Association, in an editorial published in the St. Petersburg Times. "Consider the waterfront parcels Tampa recently acquired downtown, including a 2.47-acre site along the Garrison Channel for $8 million. Mayor Pam Iorio plans to tie these spaces together via a riverwalk. Obviously, she understands the public trust doctrine and realizes that connecting green spaces creates a desirable urban oasis along the waterfront."

In the end, however, Iorio and the entire City Council sided against the opponents. It didn't help their cause that Davis Islands already has more parkland than any other neighborhood in Tampa, or that the hospital was willing to replace the .4 acres lost with a .7-acre linear park along the waterfront.

Grand HotelIn Belleair, residents are fighting to convert a private landmark, the Belleview Biltmore Resort and Spa, into some kind of public space and preserve it for future generations. The current owner says the hotel is not profitable, and has a deal on the table to sell the Victorian landmark developed by railroad magnate Henry B. Plant. Its likely future would be demolition and condo construction.

Rae Claire Johnson, a Belleair resident and unsuccessful town council candidate leading the fight to save the hotel from demolition, vowed to lie down in front of the bulldozers if necessary.

Those kinds of heroics might not be necessary after all, thanks to her and others' protests.

Preservationists gathered petition signatures and criticized city officials for what they viewed as a lack of concern for the structure's future. Though officials consistently pleaded they had no knowledge of what developers planned for the site, the Biltmore boosters openly wondered if some in city government didn't know more than they were revealing.

It turned out that the preservationists were right. In late April, they found out the town's mayor, George Mariani Jr., had met with officials from DeBartolo Development last year about the site, and that town attorney Joel Tew had had secret discussions with DeBartolo in January, right after a first development deal fell through. Tew resigned in the wake of those revelations.

With a different attorney now advising it on Belleview Biltmore matters, the city's tone about saving the resort has changed. In mid-May, the city's preservation board voted to deny a request from the resort's owners, Urdang & Associates, to raze the structure. The board cited an opinion from its new counsel, Nancy Stroud, who said demolition would violate town rules and conflict with its comprehensive plan. Tew previously had insisted that nothing could be done to deny a demolition permit.

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