TAMPA — With the unveiling of Water Works Park last week, Mayor Bob Buckhorn checked one more box on his agenda for making the Hillsborough River the central thread in Tampa’s social fabric.
Next on that agenda: Julian B. Lane Riverfront Park.
Buckhorn has budgeted more than $9 million to renovate the West Tampa park over the next two years. The city has budgeted $3.5 million to date. The upcoming 2015 budget, which takes effect Oct. 1, includes $2.28 million. The 2016 budget will have $3.5 million.
Denver-based planning company Civitas unveiled last week a potential design for the nearly 40-year-old park on the west bank of the river. The proposal was drawn to incorporate the ideas offered by local residents, rowers and paddleboarders during a series of community meetings.
A fourth community meeting is set for Sept. 9. The final master plan will be presented to the city this fall.
Buckhorn declared his intention in 2012 to renovate the park, which is named for Tampa’s mayor from 1959 to 1963. The park opened in 1977.
Today, outside the tennis courts and rowing center, most of the park gets little use, a victim of history, crime and neglect.
The new design aims to acknowledge the site’s past — the Roberts City neighborhood was bulldozed to create the park — while modernizing the park and connecting it with the river.
“There’s a lot to that plan that has emerged from the community,” Buckhorn said Thursday. “We hope it will be an active waterfront environment.”
Civitas officials met with the city last week to go over the community’s response to their design.
“I would say there is a lot of support for that plan, but it’s not the final plan,” said Michael Johnson, head of Civitas.
Community activist Walter Smith II, president of the West Tampa Community Council, said neighborhood residents want a park that serves their needs. They’ve asked the city to build a swimming pool, but so far that request has been rejected.
“We’re not building a pool,” Buckhorn said.
Instead, the Civitas proposal expands on the park’s current status as home to The Stewards Foundation’s rowing program. Plans call for a boat house with a community center on the second floor that could house artifacts from Roberts City, the mixed-race community that grew up around the old Roberts & Son cigar factory more than a century ago.
The new design also does away with the earthen mounds integrated into the park by its original designer, architect Richard Dattner. In their place, there could be a riverfront great lawn, new athletic fields, sand volleyball courts and a small manmade harbor where novice boaters can practice. Laurel Street would be pushed farther north to open the northern end of the park to users.
Smith said residents see some of those amenities as more for outsiders than for the neighborhood.
People worry the park renovation is the first step toward pushing the current residents out.
“There’s no other way to describe what’s happening than as gentrification,” Smith said.
The park has been wrapped into Buckhorn’s InVision plan for 150 acres of largely public land just north of Interstate 275, which city officials refer to as the “west bank.” The area includes the North Boulevard Homes public housing project and a city public works yard.
Buckhorn wants to demolish the public housing and public works yard and redevelop the property into a mix of residential and retail uses.
Smith said that plan gives pause to people in the neighborhood who still remember the destruction of Roberts City.
“We are not going to stand by and let that happen again,” he said.
Johnson said the remodeled park will include Roberts City’s history in a way the current park does not. Johnson’s proposal features a “historic walk” that cuts a path through the park. The walk would tell the stories of Roberts City, not just supply dry facts, Johnson said.
“It’s just an idea right now,” he said. “I would like it to capture the flavor of what was there, not so much as the facts of what was there.”