TAMPA — The Broadway Series, the most lucrative shows of the year for the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts, start this week, and this year the center wants all the drama to take place on stage, not during the drive to the theater.
So Straz administrators have spent months working with City Hall on a two-part strategy — improve parking and educate patrons — to help visitors get in and out of events.
On parking, Tampa officials have worked to smooth the flow of traffic into and out of the William F. Poe parking garage; to pave, improve the lighting and add a pay station at the Royal Regional parking lot on N Tampa Street; to better coordinate plans with the performing arts center; and to allow patrons to prepay for a limited amount of parking.
On patrons, the Straz Center is working to persuade ticket-holders to use that prepay option (available online at strazcenter.pmreserve.com).
The center also recommends that patrons head to the theater early and consider alternatives like Uber or Lyft, the Riverwalk, the Pirate Water Taxi, the Downtowner electric shuttle or the free In-Towner Trolley.
Another tip: think about parking a couple of blocks farther away than the Poe garage. For example, theater managers say, parking — some of it prepaid — is available at Rivergate Tower (commonly known as the Beer Can Building), just a six-minute walk from the Straz.
"And that's a stroll, not a power walk," said Lorrin Shepard, the Straz's chief operating officer.
Parking also may be available at the Barrymore Hotel on W Fortune Street, in the TECO North Lot on E Cass Street, through the Straz Center's own valet parking, on the street north of the Straz Center up to Waterworks Park, or, if you're willing to make a 15-minute walk, at the Fort Brooke Parking Garage on N Franklin Street.
And if they do drive themselves, patrons should think about where they're going to park in advance and head there. Often, it seems that theatergoers, some of them first-timers, put the Straz Center's address into their phones or GPS for directions, and end up in a traffic jam at the center, which has no parking of its own.
Straz administrators and city officials think they've made progress.
"We're a little nervous about the first week," said Straz Center CEO Judith Lisi.
You can't blame her. As downtown has gotten busier, especially on weekends, the central business district has seen days when the combination of concerts, outdoor events, hockey games, conventions and shows have drawn tens of thousands of visitors to downtown, many who have not given any thought to where they might park until they arrive.
Several times, the Straz Center has held curtains for as long as 40 minutes to give struck-in-traffic patrons time to arrive and find their seats.
There's more work ahead, officials say. There's been some conversation about running a shuttle between the Straz and remote garages, but no one has volunteered to pay for it.
Another possible boost could be the expansion of the TECO Line Streetcar, now being studied, said City Council member Harry Cohen.
If the streetcar's trolleys run up and down a north-south corridor like Franklin Street, Tampa Street or Ashley Drive, it could create opportunities for many theater patrons to park remotely at any garage near the streetcar line and take the trolley to near the theater.
In the long run, Straz administrators and trustees believe the northern end of downtown needs another parking garage — partly to accommodate growth, partly to make up for spaces lost to development.
As new buildings go up, Lisi said, parking disappears. The biggest example of that has been the lot at the corner of the Ashley Drive off-ramp from Interstate 275 and Fortune Street. It once provided employee parking for the Times Building during the day and had hundreds of spaces available for Straz patrons after-hours.
Those spaces have been lost during about a year's worth of construction, but when the complex, the Novel Riverwalk by Crescent Communities, is done, some spaces will come back. The complex's garage is expected to open around Thanksgiving and will have 319 spaces available for paid public parking after 6 p.m. weekdays, after 1 p.m. Saturdays and all day on Sundays. The rest of the spaces will be reserved for apartment residents.
While Straz administrators talk about the need for another garage, Mayor Bob Buckhorn's administration has shown no sign that it wants to build one.
For years, the city's parking fund ran in the red, requiring annual subsidies from the general fund, and city officials are not enthusiastic about taking on more debt to expand structured parking.
But Cohen said that could change after Buckhorn leaves office in spring 2019. In any case, he said, it's not sustainable to continue to hold curtains at the performing arts center while patrons circle the block looking for a place to park.
"We still are going to have to do more to create parking options for people who attend Straz functions, particularly when there are other functions downtown," Cohen said. "We have just this tremendous asset to the city that is owned by the city, and we can't risk not having it be everything that it's capable of being."
Meanwhile, the nonprofit Tampa Downtown Partnership is looking to put together a comprehensive downtown parking plan — quite possibly the first the city has ever had — that takes into consideration what the inventory actually is, prices for on- and off-street parking, zoning codes and the needs for event parking, daily parking and commuter parking.
"The perception is we're out of parking," said partnership director of transportation and planning Karen Kress. "I think the reality is there is parking, but it's not conveniently at everyone's doorstep anymore."
Contact Richard Danielson at [email protected] or (813) 226-3403. Follow @Danielson_Times