Walking The Walk — With Sensible Shoes

If you’re a successful politician, it’s pretty much a given that you can “talk the talk.” Politics is hardly the province of the oratorically challenged. Glib is good. But the key query is “Can you actually ‘walk the walk?'”

In the case of Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio, the answer is obvious. She even has sensible shoes on hand to accommodate the feat. The mayor’s beige flats are ever at the ready for her walking tours of downtown.

Not long ago such pedestrian outings would have been as fulfilling as room service at the Floridan. Exactly which vacant buildings and plywood monuments — amid the urban Bataan — would you like to ogle?

But that’s all changing — about as fast as you can say:

* “Stately, ‘Beaux Arts Classical’ federal courthouse as art museum.”

* Or “Skypoint,” the 32-story condo now under construction on Ashley Drive.

* Or “Antonios Markopoulos,” the Floridan’s new owner who plans to turn the 78-year-old icon at Cass Street and Florida Avenue into a luxury hotel.

* Or “residential reincarnations” for the Kress block as well as the Maas Brothers, Woolworth and Newberry properties.

* Or “North Franklin revival,” featuring the Arlington condo project, Franklin Street Lofts, the Residences of Franklin Street and ambitious plans for retail and entertainment.

The winds of rehab, renovation and construction scenarios are gusting downtown, and the mayor wants to make sure that certain individuals eyeball the vision – and look past the eyesores and ad hoc parking lots. So with individual city councilpersons, museum board members, development types or media opinion shapers in tow, she periodically pivots out of City Hall in those sensible flats.

One such foray was last week.

First thing you notice is how many cabbies and cops slow down, beep, smile and salute when you’re with the mayor. Already the city was seeming more pedestrian friendly.

“I’ll be doing a lot more over the next few months if the preliminary study comes back and shows that the courthouse is viable,” says Iorio.

Normally enthusiastic, the mayor now waxes effusive over the prospect presented by the century-old courthouse as an alternative to the awkwardly imploded – some would say undermined — plans for the $76-million model on the Hillsborough River.

She wants a visitor-friendly waterfront and she wants an arts district – ideally not one in the same. She’s enamored of the idea of a museum being in the middle of the urban core. She knows she’s on the verge of squeezing downtown-revitalizing lemonade from the Vinoly-designed lemon.

If the moldy and asbestos-housing courthouse, which the city owns, passes muster for viability, there will be direct ripple effects – starting in the immediate vicinity.

The city, says the mayor, would ante up some $20 million toward the courthouse conversion and an “artsy” parking garage at Florida and Twiggs. The garage would be a revenue generator for the museum. There’s also the possibility that there could be allotted museum-staff space in the Franklin Exchange Building on Florida across from the 100,000 square-foot courthouse/museum.

And the intersection of Florida and Zack – where the old Hub bar used to be – could be home to an “arts corner.” Scenarios include artist lofts/studios and an outlet for USF’s renowned Graphicstudio. Yes, Judy Genshaft also has taken the tour.

“Our objective,” underscores the mayor, “is to change the downtown Tampa experience. Currently it’s not pedestrian friendly; there’s not a lot to see; and there’s a lot of spaces between what there is to see. We’re looking at street-by-street development.”

In fact, Iorio would love to implement a redevelopment rule of thumb she learned in a recent visit to Charleston, SC. To wit: “No more than 100 feet without something catching your eye.”

A key artery in downtown’s makeover is Zack Street (from Marion Street to Ashley Drive), which the mayor believes could be an “Avenue of the Arts” and the key nexus in the four blocks between the courthouse/museum and the riverfront. She envisions landscaping, flags, banners, public art – and two-way traffic helping attract plenty of pedestrians and a gallery row.

Waterfront scenarios

Eventually, all walking tours arrive at the waterfront.

Those gazing west from Ashley unfailingly notice that the panorama from the 400 North Ashley (“Beer Can”) building to the Poe Garage is incongruously nondescript for such prime waterfront real estate. The incumbent and underwhelming Tampa Museum of Art is sandwiched between two parks rarely frequented by anyone with a home.

With so much contingent on the viability of the old courthouse, this unconscionably drab tableau remains in “the conceptual stage right now,” says Iorio.

But the concept is plenty ambitious and hardly utopian. The city would raze the old museum and the parking garage underneath. The grade-level land would become an extended park and a people magnet, while providing a vista to die for. “It’s important to be able to see the (University of Tampa) minarets uninhibited,” explains Iorio.

Plans, which include the Children’s Museum and synergy with the Riverwalk, also call for selling development rights for low-rise condos and commercial usage such as cafes. The residential component, says Iorio, would abut the Poe Garage and help “hide” it. There’s also an “opportunity for redevelopment” at the virtually hidden Kiley Gardens, next to 400 North Ashley. (Kiley Gardens would also be the backup site for the new museum if the courthouse doesn’t prove feasible.)

Developer money would subsequently fund improvements for the expansive park, (a redesigned) Ashley Drive and the aesthetic trappings for the conversion of Zack into an arts corridor.

Iorio doesn’t foresee any trouble attracting the private sector’s interest – and cooperation.

“We’re talking about THE best real estate in Tampa,” she emphasizes. “They would love to build on it.”

And two final thoughts:

First, imagine a walking tour that doesn’t include an obeisance stop at the Trump Tower site. And it’s not just logistics or the mayor’s refusal to wear her broken-in tennis shoes. It’s not included because it’s not necessary.

And, second, imagine a Tampa redevelopment story that doesn’t need to mention Channelside.

Call it building momentum.

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