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Shut down Bayshore Boulevard on Sundays? Tampa City Council is skeptical

TAMPA — Shut down Tampa’s iconic Bayshore Boulevard on Sundays? Allow a Gasparilla every weekend, but without the drunken crowds and gaudy pirates?

A group of supporters of the "Open Streets" concept pitched the idea Thursday to the Tampa City Council, saying closing down the waterfront boulevard would allow families, bicyclists, the elderly, the disabled and children to enjoy a communal space free of the often busy traffic whizzing past.

"Many other cities have this program. Tampa cannot be left behind," said Danielle Joyce, a private-sector traffic engineer and a member of Walk Bike Tampa, a non-profit seeking to widen opportunities for pedestrians and bicyclists.

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Mayor Bob Buckhorn said he’s supportive of increased connectivity, but doesn’t see shutting down Bayshore on Sundays as very likely in his remaining tenure.

"The pressure on Bayshore is pretty intense," Buckhorn said late Thursday. "The idea has merit, but our manpower and budget has really been stretched."

The group has submitted plans to city staff and asked for the city to name a liaison and determine regularly scheduled days where the street would be closed to cars and trucks.

Bayshore would be ideal as it would connect to the Riverwalk, said Christine Acosta, the group’s executive director.

"This is what we feel is most sustainable," said Joyce, one of about a half-dozen speakers who spoke in support.

Their enthusiasm for extending the "world’s longest continuous sidewalk" into the street also met some skepticism on the council dais.

"If you close Bayshore you’re going to hear from our South Tampa people. Have some common sense," said Council chairwoman Yvonne "Yolie" Capin.

Capin suggested W Cypress Street in West Tampa, which she said would be a more "diverse" stretch of road.

The city’s Transportation and Stormwater Director Jean Duncan said the city didn’t support the idea because of costs, insurance and permitting concerns and limited police resources. The plan submitted by Bike Walk Tampa lacked specifics about how many lanes would be closed and for how long, among other details, Duncan said after the meeting.

"It was too broad of a request," Duncan said.

Despite her reservations about Bayshore, Capin had more positive things to say about the idea of creating an open, safe space in the public way.

So did council member Mike Suarez who said the city needed to think outside the box more often.

"You ought to open your mind a little bit on this," Suarez told Duncan. "Let’s figure out how we can do this instead of all the challenges we have."

Suarez, Capin and council member Harry Cohen all indicated Bayshore might not be the right fit.

Supporters of the Bayshore location didn’t back down. They said the high-profile location is ideal for the closure to draw attention to the Open Streets concept.

An added benefit? The boulevard’s current traffic volume makes it hard for the elderly and children to reach the wide sidewalk along the water. A key concept of the Open Streets movement is that streets should be accessible and enjoyed by anyone between ages 8 and 80, they said.

Open Streets, an international movement championed by Gil Penalosa, a former parks commissioner in Bogota, Colombia, advocates closing busy thoroughfares, typically on Sundays, to help bring residents out into the streets for exercise, fresh air and community bonding.

The movement has spread around the world in recent years. San Francisco closes streets in various neighborhoods on different Sundays, Suarez noted.

Closer to home, St. Petersburg has experimented with the concept, closing off parts of Central Avenue one Sunday during each of the last two years. Penalosa spoke to the St. Petersburg City Council in 2016.

Tampa is no stranger to the general concept. Two bike events in 2014-2015 closed Kennedy Boulevard downtown between Tampa and Nebraska Avenues on October Sundays.

Council member Harry Cohen said he was enthusiastic about creating more space for bikers and pedestrians, but he told the activists to be patient, changes are coming.

The city is planning to reduce the speed limit to 35 mph when an additional bike lane is added between South Howard Avenue and Gandy Boulevard. The city is also planning for three or four more mid-block crossings between Howard Avenue and downtown, he said.

In the end, the council agreed to discuss the idea further at a March 22 workshop.

"This is something that just cries out for a pilot program. We could just try it," Cohen said.

Contact Charlie Frago at [email protected] or (727)893-8459. [email protected] Frago.

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