Everyone would agree that putting an oil lube garage on the banks of the Hillsborough River was not a swift move — think environmental degradation. But when the Tampa Police Department made that decision, they were not the first group to mess with the riverbank. Starting in 1907, shipyards, electric equipment manufacturing and streetcar repair were all placed along the stretch of the river north of downtown.
Once, the handsome, two-story brick structure known as the Water Works was used to harvest the fresh, clear water bubbling up from Ulele Springs to provide drinking water for local residents. When I first saw the natural springs many decades later, they were hidden under tons of trash. The place was a dump, abandoned and derelict. The original building, dusty and musty, was used only to house supplies for the police. Police-car oil changes and repairs took place in an adjacent garage overlooking the river.
Five years later, an ambitious transformation has taken place on the river’s edge. A lush park with a host of amenities flanked by a terrific restaurant now stands there — a testament to vision, tenacity and funding.
The City of Tampa got the ball rolling, asking the Tampa Heights neighbors what they wanted to see in the public space along the river. Amazingly, the laundry list of a half dozen requests has been accommodated. Water Works Park boasts a dog park, a covered picnic area with WiFi, a large open area for games or concerts, and a play park area with a rope boat and a splash pad.
Biltmore Construction worked with Rowe Architects, which designed the site as well as the structures. Rick Rowe explains that the “playful pavilions,” which sport slanted rooflines, were created to echo the slope of the original Water Works Building. “We were inspired by Japanese origami when designing the pavilions,” says Rowe.
Due to careful penny-pinching by the architect and contractor, the City’s desire for a permanent bandshell was satisfied. The bandshell, which was not in the original plan, can accommodate the Florida Orchestra as well as rock bands, special events, and plays.
Currently, when a concert is held in Curtis Hixon Park next to the Tampa Museum of Art, the City of Tampa has to drive a portable stage with a noisy generator to the site. Having a bandshell with adequate electrical outlets is a godsend. The space is available for rental, and perhaps the Gasparilla Music Festival will realize that this space is a far more preferable site for their programming than Kiley Garden.
During the park’s construction, you may have noticed huge piles of dirt being moved around; 20,000 cubic yards, in fact. Because the soil was contaminated from all the previous heavy industrial uses, the toxic dirt had to be replaced. Initially the wonderful large live oaks were threatened with removal, but the city determined that if the area were classified for recreational rather than residential remediation then these huge trees could be saved — and they were.
The springs were rescued in similarly heroic fashion. The fresh water from the springs was originally going to be dumped from a cement pipe into the Hillsborough River — not too exciting. Then Tom Ries, CEO and founder of Ecosphere Restoration Institute, came to the City and offered to help secure the funding to restore the springs and recreate the natural spring run.
The restored wetlands are now planted with native species, and there’s a continuous flow of crystalline water which supports the vegetation and attracts manatees. Within two hours after fresh water began flowing into the river, manatees swam up to the park. How crazy that an urban area has such a convenient venue for viewing manatees? (So crazy that we’ve given the park a Best of the Bay award for that feature — see p. 45.)
Florida has some inflexible rules, even if you’re trying to be a do-gooder, and changing the cement basin to create a “living shoreline” was tough and required onerous permits. Fortunately, Ries was determined to see this project through and persevered. In the process of opening up and cleaning out the basin, he uncovered a third spring.
Ulele Springs now boasts a mini-waterfall and two charming footbridges over the estuarine lagoon. The educational opportunities provided by the manatees, coupled with the seductive beauty of the spot, should turn locals into river-protectors.
What would a park be without historic markers? Clara Frye, the nurse who led the charge for a hospital to care for Tampa’s black population, has a handsome bronze bust on the Riverwalk, surrounded by a memorial garden. In 1908 she opened her home as a hospital and later secured a building on Lamar Street, where patients were treated without regard to payment. Dying impoverished, decades later, she deserves her marker, at the very least.
The park’s total cost was $7.4 million, $6.5 million of which came from Community Investment Tax funding proposed by the mayor and voted upon by Tampa City Council. An additional $900,000 or so came from grants from SWFWMD, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the US Fish and Wildlife Service, as well as private donations from the Tampa Rotary, Sierra Club of Tampa Bay, and Friends of Tampa Recreation.
The park is so glorious and the spring’s restoration so miraculous that there’s plenty of credit to go around. Bravo to you all!
Water Works Park, 1710 N. Highland Avenue, Tampa. Open sunrise to sunset. Theoretically no booze — but Ulele restaurant is adjacent.