Friendship Trail Bridge has friends trying to save it from demolition

04/23/12 Janelle Irwin
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A group of Tampa Bay area residents is fighting the clock to save the old Gandy Bridge as a pedestrian and bicycle trail. The group, led by architect Kenneth Cowart, has until the next Hillsborough County Commission meeting to come up with plans enticing enough for the board to take the doomed Friendship Trail Bridge off the chopping block.

Earlier this month Hillsborough County Commissioners were set to vote on the demolition of one of Florida’s oldest bridges. But they didn’t. Instead, they gave a group of bridge-saving advocates 30-days to create a comprehensive business plan. The challenge was accepted.

“We believe that about 70% of the bridge is salvageable. We acknowledge that about 30% definitely needs to be removed and renovated. And we’re looking at how do you renovate that? How do you fix that up? How do you make it economically viable and how do you make it better than it was before?”

Cowart and his group have until May 16 to make something happen – or at least create a promising vision. He claims that the county made a decision that was based on a lack of information.

“There was a report that came out a number of years ago that studied the bridge and said that it was ready to fall apart under its own weight. Unfortunately, that report concentrated on particular elements and the county saw those elements and decided to demolish the whole thing.”

The group already has several ideas on how to save the closed down bridge that is adjacent to the current Gandy Bridge for vehicles. They haven’t released details, but one idea is to base their plans on the High Line in New York City. There, a group set out to save a historic rail line and eventually turned it into an above-city walkway and park. Julia Gorzka-Freeman, spokesperson for Friends of the Friendship Trail Bridge, said a lot goes into making something like that happen.

“It’s really the new generation that’s looking on – how do we keep this asset we have in our community. With all of our diverse skill sets we’re already planning and looking at things like, how we get the business plan together that the County Commission has asked us for. Then the next thing, of course, that we’re going to be looking into is fundraising and how we approach that and the best way to get the monies that we need for the plan that we get approved.”

Right now, the group is only trying to think of ways to present an affordable and sustainable plan to county commissioners. Hillsborough has $5 million set aside for demolition. If they reject that option, that money could either be saved or used for renovation. In either case, it gives planners something to work with. Gorzka-Freeman said the focus right now is on presenting an offer the commission can’t refuse – one that doesn’t include demolition.

“We are looking at already, a variety of options that could be used to address the problem. That’s the really neat thing about our group is that we’re able to take a really creative approach to looking at this about, well, what can we make this into? There’s not just one way to approach a problem.”

But funding is an issue. The county based original recommendations to tear the bridge down on a repair estimate that soared to almost $50 million. But the architect Cowart and his group say it can be done for as little as $7 million. Neil Cosentino is the man responsible for bringing all of this together – and for originally saving the bridge in the ‘90s. He said one idea to raise revenue for the bridge would be to rent it out to private companies for things like concerts and festivals. Or, he added, leasing portions of the bridge to private companies.

“A fifty-year lease is worth a lot to business people if they want to build venues and buildings on the end.”

The trail spans Tampa Bay from mid-Pinellas to Hillsborough County. Parks are already in place at both ends of the bridge that supporters say would make great starting and stopping points for family day trips. Alan Snel, the director of the Southwest Florida Bicycle United Dealers – or SWFBUD – said that connection is important for the region and especially for cyclists.

“It’s really the one unifying piece of architecture that connects Tampa and St. Petersburg; Hillsborough County and Pinellas County. Our whole region comes together thanks to this bridge.”

Since the trail was closed in 2008 because of safety concerns, few cyclists are willing to cross any of the three Hillsborough-Pinellas bridges traveled by vehicles.

“The Friendship Trail Bridge was one of the premier places in the Tampa Bay market where bicyclists of all backgrounds – whether you’re a hardcore roadie or just a casual bicyclist who likes going on a cruiser – can enjoy biking on an area that doesn’t have vehicular traffic and also just gives you amazing views of the Tampa Bay area.”

Other supporters of saving the trail are jumping on board to do their part. Some staff tables at outreach events to gain support. Others offer their professional services to help with logistics of presenting a plan to Hillsborough County Commission. Dan Fradley is one of them.

“We were conditioned as kids not to burn bridges and there’s a good reason why, because you can’t get it back.”

He envisions the finished product being the park of all parks that won’t just attract the locals.

“I’d like to see a lot of green - a lot of plants – maybe some artwork on the pavement where you could sell 10 by 10 spaces and have art competitions and you could play games on the bridge.”

Until it closed, the Friendship Trail Bridge was the only pedestrian and bike trail connecting Hillsborough and Pinellas over water. That’s about to change though. Construction on another trail will begin on Monday along the Courtney Campbell Causeway. That bridge connects Clearwater to the Tampa International Airport area. That project will be completed next summer.

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I used the trail 2 to 3 times a week for rollerblading, running, and walking before it was closed. I miss it very much!!! It was the best place to work out; a jewel for so many in the Tampa Bay area.