TAMPA — Changes are almost certainly coming to downtown Tampa's all-but-forgotten Herman Massey Park.
The question is when.
City officials say they expect to upgrade the park after they know more about what's coming to two neighboring properties and how those plans will affect the half-acre park. Officials are talking to prospective developers who would likely want a better and maybe bigger park to complement their plans.
"When we are ready, which will be in the not too distant future, we will do the same thing that we did with the Washington Street Park" in the Channel District, city redevelopment official Bob McDonaugh recently told the City Council. And, as in the Channel District, that process will include meeting with residents to ask what they want.
"I know there are a lot of people with dogs," McDonaugh said. "The days of designing a park around a seesaw and a swing set are gone. People want a place for their dogs, a place to hang out."
But some downtown residents and business owners would like to see changes made even sooner, especially since the 23-story Nine15 apartment tower is under construction just across Tyler Street from the park.
"I wish we could talk a little more about what we want do right now ... that makes this park usable," European Wax Center owner Frank Grebowski said Thursday night at a meeting of the Downtown River Arts Neighborhood Association, which covers the area from the Hillsborough River to Marion Street and from Interstate 275 to Kennedy Boulevard.
City Council member Mike Suarez urged about 40 people at the meeting to keep talking and to try to come up with a consensus vision that the city can use as a framework for a long-range plan.
"All things are on the table," city downtown redevelopment manager Rob Rosner told residents. Rosner said it usually takes about 15 months to plan a project funded by redevelopment funds that are generated and used within downtown, but the process can be squeezed down to nine.
"The faster, the better," said Eliot Dylan Marr, who lives in The Residences of Franklin Street, just north of the park.
In the meantime, two place-making specialists from the nonprofit Tampa Downtown Partnership encouraged the neighborhood association to consider applying for a partnership grant to help activate the park.
In about a month, the partnership plans to launch a two-year initiative to focus on, among other things, how to improve downtown public spaces that, like Massey Park, have potential but have been overlooked.
Named for a former parks director who started out as a laborer, Herman Massey Park opened in 1987 at the northwest corner of Franklin and Tyler streets.
But by the early 1990s, Massey Park had become a de facto campground for vagrants, who took to calling it "Messy Park." In 2004, the city shut down a Food Not Bombs effort to feed the homeless at the park, and in 2005, closed the park itself.
City Hall re-opened the park in 2008 after $83,700 in renovations, but it has had trouble shaking a bad reputation.
Police are called to the park about three times every two weeks, said Officer Daniel McDonald, who works full-time as a police liaison to Tampa's homeless population.
Police records show that over the last year officers have handled at least 15 drug-related incidents at the park, another 10 involving trespass or other misdemeanors and a half-dozen more involving disturbances, fights and an unspecified felony.
Residents say the park could use more green space, more places to sit and less of the black metal picket fence that makes it look unwelcoming.
"Right now, the park looks like a jail," resident Gloria Jean Royster recently told the City Council.
"Dark and foreboding," agreed council member Harry Cohen, whose family owned Metro Fabrics on the site until the business was destroyed by a three-alarm fire on March 30, 1984. "Back in the day, Franklin Street was a great retail center for the city."
For starters, the city has trimmed some trees in the park, plans to remove some palms and take out a bench-high wall that's crumbling.
As the neighborhood becomes more active, McDonaugh said the city also might be able to look at removing the fence that surrounds the park.
"It's a place that needs to be refreshed," Suarez said. There are "a lot more residents there now, so we need to have a nice little pocket park that is going to meet the needs of those new neighbors."
Contact Richard Danielson at [email protected] or (813) 226-3403. Follow @Danielson_Times