In homogenized America, with its chain stores and chain restaurants lining standardized roads full of similar cars, big investments in distinctive projects deserve notice. The best of these improvements merit applause, which is why the Hillsborough City-County Planning Commission for the 30th year has hosted an awards ceremony to praise the year's best additions.
Earlier this month at the Straz Center for the Performing Arts, three downtown Tampa projects won judges' choice awards. They are, as Commission Chairman Frank Chillura said, "regional economic engines."
One is USF's Center for Advanced Medical Learning and Simulation. Known as CAMLS, the training lab will lure more than 30,000 surgeons and other medical professionals to Tampa each year. The building, done by the Beck Group, is a handsome, practical design. It connects to the Franklin Street walkway, near the downtown end of the TECO Streetcar line.
The streetcar itself won recognition for its recent expansion from the convention center, under the Selmon Expressway and across busy Brorein Street. The federally supported project, done by the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority, Kimmins Contracting and Tampa Historic Streetcar Inc., was on time and under budget.
The panel of out-of-county judges also lauded the renovation of the Tampa Bay Times Forum. Praise went specifically to Jeff Vinik, owner of the Tampa Bay Lightning, and to Tod Leiweke, the hockey team's CEO.
Vinik put more than $40 million into the building, which is not even his. It's owned by Hillsborough County. The investment was needed, he has said, to make sure visitors to the Forum know they're in Tampa, not just any generic arena in any city.
Theater-quality seats, Tesla coils to produce exciting electrical flashes, a new organ and much more make a visit to the Forum a memorable experience. The judges also were impressed that at each game the Lighting financially rewards the service of a community hero.
Personal and corporate recognition is not just for the heroes and those with the best ideas. Thirty years ago, when Joe Chillura was chairman of the planning commission, he convinced the board to begin the tradition of the design awards. He was thinking long-term. Some critics scoff that it's a waste of time and that one project is as good as another. They're wrong.
The value is not so much in encouraging better projects and plans. Hundreds of projects have won awards over the years, and the talented people responsible were motivated by much more than a possible award.
The real value has been in helping us members of the public see and appreciate the difference between run-of-the-mill development and truly outstanding work. In a competitive world, and one in which most of our built environment is so utilitarian it's downright boring, those whose work inspires lasting civic pride are the ones who give a city its winning edge.