Oct 21, 2021 - Real Estate
Rethinking Tampa's "blank canvas"
A shot of vacant Marion Street, a bus artery through downtown Tampa, on Wednesday morning.
A shot of vacant Marion Street, a bus artery through downtown Tampa, on Wednesday morning. Photo: Ben Montgomery/Axios

There's a nearly vacant boulevard that cuts right through the heart of downtown Tampa featuring beautiful shade trees, wide sidewalks, very little traffic ... and virtually no activity.

  • Designed in the 1980s, Marion Street is a transit artery for city buses through the middle of downtown that is closed to cars. And since there's no car traffic, there's also been no business development.
  • No sidewalk cafés, shoe-shine kiosks or newsstands. It's an urban canyon lined by the bare backs of buildings.

Yes, but: Only three buses per hour use it now, so the mile-long Marion Street exists only as a shadow road, a sketchy arterial void in the cityscape.

A map of Marion Street
Map: Jacque Schrag/Axios

But, but, but: Boosters see potential. There's no substantial benefit to completely reopening the road to car traffic.

  • And since Tampa is hosting the International Downtown Association conference this week, the Downtown Partnership took out-of-town planners, developers and engineers on a brainstorming tour.
  • The visiting experts agreed the infrastructure was "to die for" and the street was a "blank canvas."

What's new: Planners from cities like Atlanta, Phoenix and New York proposed ways to "activate" the scene, including stringing bistro lights from oak to oak or starting a long, linear farmers market.

A collage of street scenes along Marion Street in downtown Tampa.
A collage of street scenes along Marion Street in downtown Tampa. Photos: Ben Montgomery/Axios

What we're watching: Some inspired ideas involved pop-up retail, like transforming the cool old bus stops into vendor kiosks or hosting a periodic art market and rebranding it "The Marion Mile."

  • Beautification ideas: Wrapping the oak trees in lights, inviting muralists to paint the many blank walls and landscaping on the sidewalks and median to soften the harsh streetscape.

What's next: Karen Kress, director of transportation and planning at the Downtown Partnership, tells Axios she's committed to making at least one of the ideas happen. Then, who knows?

  • A planner from Denver noted that his city's 16th Street Mall took years to come to fruition.
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