Public agencies shape our urban landscape

Tampa's "Authorities" vary widely in their recognition of the power of art and design to further their missions.

click to enlarge GOOD EYE: An “oculi” in TIA’s new Airside F terminal gives passengers in the international waiting areas a glimpse of sky. - Alfonso Architects
Alfonso Architects
GOOD EYE: An “oculi” in TIA’s new Airside F terminal gives passengers in the international waiting areas a glimpse of sky.

The word “Authority” suggests “The Enemies of Fun,” doesn’t it? Certainly not aficionados of art and design.

Well, our area has several legal “authorities,” and they vary widely in their recognition of the power of art and design to further their missions.

Tampa International Airport, run by the Aviation Authority, is the hands-down winner for best design choices. Beginning this month, its most exciting innovation will be revealed. The newly renovated and expanded International Terminal is sensational, and Albert Alfonso, the architect, deserves kudos for the stunning space he created.

Airside F feels international in both sophistication and impact, with its use of modern materials in a crisp, classically modern form. Light shafts or “oculi” flood the waiting areas with sunshine, and the sinuously curving plaster embraces travelers with its cool, smooth surface. Ferrari-red “light cannons” resembling the smoke stacks of an ocean liner hug the exterior of the light wells, and a 250-foot photo mural of a Gulf beach will greet visitors waiting for their baggage, breaking the tedium of travel with its enveloping imagery.

When TIA launched the groundbreaking concept of serving landside and airside needs in separate buildings linked by a people-mover, the designers used new thinking to revolutionize airport design. Joe Lopano, the TIA’s CEO, declares, ”These leaders had the courage and vision to create the first ever automated people-mover in any airport in the world. Our legacy must be to continue this kind of bold action.”

He envisions extending the existing people-mover south to a new airport hotel, office tower, retail space and consolidated car rental area. Perhaps the people-mover could continue south to a transit center in the Westshore area. Lopano observes, “We are competing globally and good design gives us an edge. Our carriers and passengers appreciate the beauty and efficiency of flying into Tampa.”

You don’t usually equate riding a bus with high-quality design experiences, but ever since the major investments in public design made in the Marion Street Parkway construction, the Hillsborough Area Regional Transportation Authority (HART) has been exemplary. Bus riders entering the Marion Transfer Center are treated to a thoughtfully designed public space that celebrates beauty with wonderful mosaics, an historic granite clock flanked by carved griffins saved from the Peoples Gas Building demolition, and well-designed waiting areas shaded by canary palms.

Sharon Dent’s tenure as director of HART from 1990-2004 was marked by her commitment to elevating passengers’ transportation experience through design. Perhaps her most imaginative contribution was the custom fabric woven for bus seats and patterned with local imagery like the UT minarets.

The Dick Greco Plaza across from the Tampa Convention Center uses an airy canopy to protect waiting streetcar passengers and amuses them with a sculpture of former Mayor Greco, seemingly ready to chat. In the Channel District, the traditional handcarts of the dockworkers are immortalized in bronze, and in Ybor City the stops feature bronze versions of the cigar workers’ chairs with local poetry in Spanish and English. Ken Garcia, the project architect, commented, “HART was great to work with because they supported art and architecture that reflected the area’s roots.”

The Expressway Authority started out aesthetically clueless, building roadways which insensitively slashed neighborhoods, but they have totally improved their act. The Meridian Street entry to the expressway demonstrates a completely fresh approach (literally) to an elevated highway. By creating a generously landscaped, tree-lined, wide-sidewalked, artfully signed entry, the entire access experience morphed from mediocrity to delight. Landscaping under bridges and making the entry into Brandon a garden spot has endeared the Expressway Authority to the communities its roads traverse.

The Tampa Port Authority missed a great opportunity in its placement of the three-story globe sculpture in its lobby. This giant sculpture could have been the visual anchor for the axis of Kennedy Boulevard, arguably the main east-west street in our urban core. Now, it’s a nothing.

But the Port of Tampa has a chance for redemption. With a new director, Paul Anderson, who compares Tampa to Italy during the Renaissance, there’s hope for this authority to step up its commitment to good design. The Port Authority worked closely with the city on the relocation of the George Sugarman sculpture now located in the roundabout outside the Florida Aquarium, by providing the foundation design.

Tampa Housing Authority has always struggled to balance its mandate of providing shelter with its larger mission of creating community. In recent years, THA has built attractive homes and apartments with community centers at their core. The physical enhancements of better architecture and landscaping are complemented by after-school and summer programs, computer labs, libraries for tutoring and play areas.

As the Encore project begins to emerge just northeast of the urban center, I hope that the Housing Authority will invest in design details to attract mixed-income residents. The short-term costs would be offset by the long-term popularity of the area.

Mayor Bob Buckhorn sits as a voting board member for the HART, TIA, Port and Expressway authorities and therefore plays a role in all the properties they control. He is directing Tampa’s evolution through his leadership in the creation of the InVision Plan for Center City. Randy Goers, the InVision project manager, points to the Plan’s key premise that excellent urban design is a must in all development.

“We are expecting that all the city’s partners will take this promise of quality design seriously.”

Time will tell.