The Life and Death of a Masterpiece
What went wrong with a 1988 park by the late Dan Kiley, and what
can we learn from its imminent demolition?
By George Hazelrigg
Photo by Eric Dusenberry
In 1988, architect Harry Wolf and landscape architect Dan Kiley
gave Tampa, Florida, something very beautiful: a striking cylindrical
office tower and seven-story cubic banking hall by Wolf and a park
designed by Kiley and Wolf that, through geometry, tied the buildings
to the ground and related them to the city.
North Carolina National Bank (NCNB) Plaza was a masterful downtown
ensemble at the edge of the Hillsborough River: Like a sentinel,
the limestone-clad tower presided over downtown arrivals, and the
cubical banking hall repeated the rhythm of the street grid. Wolf
proposed and Kiley agreed to extend the tower's fenestration pattern,
which was based on rigorous application of the proportional system
of Fibonacci numbers, onto the surrounding site. Allées of lofty
native palm trees crossed the site, drawing the eye to the river.
The geometry of the tower and banking hall guided walkway dimensions
and inspired an intricate pattern of grass and paving stones, fountains,
and runnels. Water features were everywhere: shallow pools along
Ashley Drive, a water garden located near the convention center,
and a northsouth canal topping a 400-foot-long corridor extending
out from the tower and banking hall. The canal served as a portal
from the street to the elevated plaza, an armature tying everything
together. As counterpoint to the site's geometry, Kiley and Wolf
created an understory of hundreds of randomly placed crape myrtle
Sixteen years later, the crape myrtles form a dense canopy that
merges with the foliage of the palm trees, blocking sunlight from
reaching the ground. Without sun, most of the grass between pavers
has died out, leaving dark, bare earth. The canopy obscures views
of the tower, disconnecting the building's strong design relationship
to the park. The reflecting pools along Ashley Drive have been paved
over. All that remains of the plexiglass-bottomed canal is a remnant
inside the building complex; a concrete bleacher takes its place
on the plaza. The ground-level fountains are dry, and the nine runnels
crossing the site are abandoned. Pavers tilt here and there, and
some are cracked or chipped. The water garden is empty, its trees
bent and forlorn.
Last year, Peter Lindsay Schaudt, ASLA, a former associate of Kiley's
who worked on the project for three years, returned to Tampa and
advised The Cultural Landscape Foundation, a not-for-profit institution
promoting awareness of and support for cultural landscapes, that
the park now represented "a modern ruin, almost cemetery-like."
In fact, most 16-year-old cemeteries look better. The city announced
plans to demolish the Kiley-Wolf park.
From modern masterpiece of landscape architecture to ruin, from
a public/private civic asset to a blight on downtown Tampa, how
did this place devolve? That there was a major failure of maintenance
is not in doubt. But was inappropriate design also a factor? Were
the park's hardscape featurespools, canal, runnels, fountainsoverdesigned?
Given the site conditions, were the plantings too dense or the wrong
species? Did they require an unreasonable amount of maintenance?
Was responsibility for maintenance vague, divided, or unspecified?
Was the park too ambitious for downtown Tampa? Was it doomed from
the outset because of constraints imposed by its location? Or by
inevitable changes that would follow in a city in need of revitalization?
And who is to blame for failure: the designers, their clients, the
city, or all three?
In the mid-1980s, banking executive Hugh McColl selected Tampa
as the regional headquarters of his Charlotte-based North Carolina
National Bank and asked Harry Wolf to find a downtown site for a
new building. The architect quickly settled on a city-owned parcel
next to the river at the intersection of two thoroughfares, and
the bank struck a deal with the city: Wolf's 33-story tower and
banking hall would be erected in place of an existing city parking
lot. Next to it and extending along the river to the nearby Tampa
Museum of Art would go a 3.5-acre park, one of Kiley's most complex
urban works, built and paid for by the building's owners and installed
atop a new underground parking garage. In return, the city would
assume responsibility for the park's maintenance.
When the NCNB Plaza opened in 1988, the city received a park in
beautiful condition. The project won design awards, was sufficiently
maintained during its first years, evidently pleased park visitors,
and received favorable reviews in the media. An otherwise laudatory
review published by Progressive Architecture in early 1989
noted, however, that the park required more meticulous maintenance
than city crews normally provide.
Michael Cole, ASLA, who worked for Odell Associates in preparing
the project's construction documents, says city personnel were brought
in from the beginning to ensure their familiarity with all aspects
of the construction, including the operation of pumps, filters,
wiring, and other equipment. Schaudt says no one had raised the
issue of maintenance during the park's installationalthough
it was known that the city would be responsible for that maintenance.
Kiley may simply have assumed that the park would be properly maintained.
A few weeks after the park was completed, according to city officials,
Tampa's mayor, Sandy Freedman, negotiated a new agreement by which
the building owners would assume responsibility for park maintenance,
with the city covering 50 percent of the costs. Thus, private contractors
hired by consecutive building owners had responsibility for park
maintenance; city crews occasionally cleaned up after special events
or responded to electrical or other special problems. But the site
remained a city park, and the city did monitor it and was involved
in major decisions concerning maintenance, alterations, and safety.
So maintenance failures must be considered public/private failures.
Wolf sees the park's maintenance requirements as straightforward.
For instance, proper pruning of the trees should not have been difficult,
he says. Regarding the grass/pavement relationship, he says the
grass was intended to grow over the pavers, thus blurring distinctions
between walkway and grass. In the areas where people walked, the
grass would wear away; the areas pedestrians skirted would stay
greener, and visitors would feel unconstrained by walks channeling
their movements. He and Kiley wanted to reveal the interface between
man and nature, Wolf says, avoiding the sterility of a clipped park
and encouraging the park's use. The concept of path use establishing
the grass/pavement relationship is intriguing, but was the expected
result realistic? Until a grass/pavement pattern became established,
the public might perceive the park as seedy.
As for the crape myrtles, Schaudt and Cole concur that perhaps
too many were planted. They believe, however, that the project would
have worked if it had received proper maintenance. Wolf recalls
that he and Kiley wanted the park to have a lush, tropical character.
This, of course, was not the first time a Kiley project was criticizedrightly
or wronglyfor having too many trees planted too closely; some
other Kiley landscapes have been considerably modified or have had
trees removed. Whether drastic measures were always justified, few
observers would dispute the need in such instances for careful pruning.
The Tampa park was no exception.
Another issue was the soil constraints resulting from planting
allées of palm trees and hundreds of crape myrtles atop a parking
garage. Because of structural-load restrictions and garage elevations
dictated by the river's high-water table, the designers were limited
to a soil depth of only about four feet. The light soil mix that
was used inevitably settled under the weight of stone and precast
pavers and park accessories made from stone. (As Schaudt and Cole
observe, planting-soil technologies have advanced considerably since
the mid-1980s.) Weight on the supporting concrete cell structure,
composed of inverted precast Ts, increased as the trees matured,
and load restrictions today preclude even light service vehicles
from entering the park, city officials say. They also attribute
leaks in the garage to drainage design. The repairs will require
extensive, if temporary, alteration of the park. If nothing else,
these problems provided another argument for the park's removal.
To endure and thrive, the KileyWolf park would have required
a continuing stewardship commitment. But from the start, responsibility
for maintenance was divided between the public and private sectors.
As the sectors' agendas changed and diverged, no one stepped up
or sought control. McColl had wanted an outstanding regional headquarters,
and that's what he got. But the bank eventually moved out, and today
the building is simply called 400 North Ashley Plaza. Garage revenue
and gains in off-street parking were probably city officials' prime
motivations for cutting the deal with McColl's bank, although they
had to recognize the dramatic architectural statement being made
on the riverfront. A public constituency for the park never developed,
and there's no indication the city ever sought one.
The building's new owner in 2001still the owner todayplanned
repairs to the park, according to newspaper reports at the time.
Contradicting that implied advocacy, the press quoted Mayor Dick
Greco as saying the owner did not want the park. Greco then confirmed
plans to demolish "the abandoned Kiley garden," and the owner apparently
scrapped plans to make the repairs. Instead, in a bid to attract
tenants to a building in a downtown rife with surplus office space,
the city and owner paved over the street-side reflecting pools to
create a turnaround area for cars. So far, it hasn't workedat
least for the banking hall, which remains vacant.
Other factors, some beyond the designers' control, undoubtedly
affected the park's fate. For one, because it sits atop the garage,
the park is eight feet higher than the adjacent sidewalk. As studies
by William H. "Holly" Whyte have demonstrated, changes of elevation
like this discourage visitors. The water canal served to mark the
grade transition and sought to invite entry to the park beyond,
and several ramps designed with the same intent provided restricted
views into the park from the street. Nevertheless, the grade change
was always a problem and was not improved by the canal's removal.
Without residential areas nearby, this was never a neighborhood
park, nor was it meant to be. There were hopes, Wolf says, that
the Tampa Museum of Art, located at the park's northern boundary,
would see in the park an opportunity to expand, a de facto front
yard. "The park was designed with that in mind," he says. But the
museum didn't expand, and patrons showed little interest in entering
the park. The city's convention center, also located just to the
north, closed soon after the park opened and was demolished several
years later. Wolf says that plans for the center's demise were known
when the park was designed, but what might replace it was not. If
the park were to stay alive without nearby residences or an active
retail or entertainment presence, it would have had to rely on use
by the occupants of nearby office buildings. The city sponsored
lunchtime concerts there for a while but discontinued them, in part
because of insufficient space for public gatherings. A small amphitheater
on the river, designed primarily as contemplative space, offers
only limited seating and in any case faces west into the setting
As the park declined in appearance, it also waned in use, making
it a magnet for Tampa's homeless population. Homeless people are
forced to leave at closing, but they return the following day. Of
the office employees who take smoking breaks in the tower building's
doorways, few venture far into the park. Ashley Drive pedestriansthere
aren't many of themwalk past the park as though it were invisible.
For all practical purposes, it is.
Tampa's current mayor, Pam Iorio, who took office last April, supports
removal of the park. For one thing, she says, many people feel unsafe
visiting the park in its current condition. Then there are the water
leaks, which must soon be addressed. In addition, the city allocates
scarce resources to parks and other public facilities according
to use and neighborhood demands. The mayor contends that Tampa needs
a public space that people will usenot in isolation but as
part of a larger context. "We have tried 'an art approach,'" she
says in obvious reference to the existing park. She advocates widening
a vista across the river to Tampa University, where minarets atop
a restored nineteenth-century building offer one of Tampa's best
Iorio and other civic leaders want to revitalize the area around
the park with new housing and retail space. When that will happen
is unclear, but private investors have shown interest in substantial
downtown redevelopment during the past year. Meanwhile, the museum
has commissioned Rafael Viñoly to design a new home for its collections.
Viñoly's 125,000-square-foot building will front on Ashley Drive,
just north of Wolf's building, its dimensions determined by the
width and height of the cubic banking hall. The new museum is intended
to mediate between the street and elevated park level to its west
through a series of open public spaces, providing views through
the museum and beyond. Viñoly likens the new museum to a permeable
sponge that will attract people to and through the structure.
A new, enlarged riverfront parkcombining what would remain
of the Kiley-Wolf park location, the existing museum's forecourt,
and another park just to the northwill provide a unified green
space. The new museum and Wolf's buildings will anchor one end of
what Tampa leaders hope will become an extensive cultural arts district
along the river. The price tag for the new museum is $62 million,
with about half of the funds coming from private sources. That estimate
does not include the cost of the new park.
The city envisions the new park as a destination to draw visitors
day and night and a platform for arts festivals, theatrical productions,
and concertsthe cultural arts district's geographic center.
A more pedestrian-friendly Ashley Drive bordering the district is
also planned, a step in ultimately connecting the district to Tampa's
urban core. In late February the city selected Thomas Balsley Associates
as the finalist to prepare a conceptual master plan for the downtown
waterfront park, and HDR Engineering, Inc., and EDAW were chosen
to do the master planning for the Ashley Drive enhancements.
What lessons might we take from the Tampa experience?
Peter Walker, FASLA, visited Tampa in the mid-1990s and found the
park already in decline. "It was a tough project requiring maintenance
above and beyond [normal levels for a public park]," he says in
a phone interview. "What was needed was a strongly committed institutional
client, given that need for high maintenance." At the 1995 Wave
Hill-National Park Service Conference on Preserving Modern Landscape
Architecture, Walker contrasted Kiley's iconic mid-1950s garden
for the house of J. Irwin Miller in Columbus, Indiana, with its
"continuously engaged patron of taste," to the "much more complex
and layered garden with exquisitely detailed water elements" designed
by Kiley and Wolf in Tampa. Walker underscored that public gardens,
parks, and plazas must grow and be maintained for life at a time
when continuity of stewardship is doubtful and in an age of fluctuating
budgets, popular taste, and functional needs.
Niall Kirkwood, ASLA, chair of the Department of Landscape Architecture
at Harvard's Graduate School of Design, takes a different approach
toward maintenance. He argues that considerations of weatheringfrom
climatic to human in originand durability should be integral
to the design process and not relegated to routine, post-completion
maintenance. Designers, according to Kirkwood, are responsible for
"making the correct design choices with regard to the efficacy and
economy of materials, elements, and site assemblies and processes."
Noting how easy it is to blame clients and budgetary issues for
neglected maintenance, Kirkwood says it is fundamental to view the
process of design over the eventual duration and evolution of the
Walker believes that Tampa also raises another issue, the frequent
lack of a clear vision of the nature and utility of public space.
Americans, devoted to the suburban house and the automobile, put
a high premium on privacy. There is no widely held conception of
the public realm. Indeed, some have argued that the individual front
lawn is probably the most common American expression of the public
realm. Walker reflects that the people of Tampa received a beautiful
design, but they never picked up on it or weren't led to appreciate
If American cities are to reach their full potential, they require
a diversity of landscapesjust as they need diverse building
stocks. Holly Whyte and Jane Jacobs taught us to respond to local
needs and desires with user-driven designs and to identify features
that cause public spaces to succeed or fail. Receiving their wisdom
is one way to enhance the public realm. But the cities that pursue
Frank Gehry and Rafael Moneo should also value masters like Kiley
and Lawrence Halprin. Can one advocate for the kinds of public spaces
Whyte promoted while also championing landscapes that win design
awards? Not if we listen to one Tampa official, who suggests that
although Wolf and Kiley designed a beautiful space, considerations
of how people would use the space were subservient to "art." Yet
examples such as New York's Bryant Park show that a design doesn't
always have to be either/or.
We know what went wrong in Tampa. Kirkwood reminds us that the
rate at which we're losing our landscape works lends urgency to
the remaining question: Where do we go from here?
George Hazelrigg is a senior project associate in the Virginia
Tech landscape architecture program in Alexandria, Virginia.
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