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Tampa's Forgotten Park: Kiley Gardens

You won't find Kiley Gardens on any list of Tampa's attractions. Despite its location in the middle of the city's busy downtown, most people don't even know it's there. And while a few people are now calling it 'Kiley Gardens' or 'Nations Bank Plaza Park', it doesn't even have an official name.

Take the Ashley Drive exit off Interstate 275, into downtown Tampa.  Kiley Gardens is located on the right, between the Tampa Museum of Art and the "Beer Can" building.


The "Beer Can" from a walkway that connects
Kiley Park to the riverfront.

The park sits at the edge of the Hillsborough River, in the shadow of what's affectionately known as Tampa's "Beer Can" building--the 33 story cylindrical skyscraper formally known as the "River Gate Tower".


Grass and paving stone patchwork, with a view of the
old Tampa Bay Hotel across the river.

There's a great view of the old Tampa Bay Hotel, now part of the University of Tampa, which sits just across the river. But the park itself can't be seen from the nearest road: Ashley Street. The design which hides it from view is probably also to blame for keeping it unknown to most locals.


A student reads in the amphitheatre, which overlooks the river and the university. - Buy this photo

This tranquil but eerie oasis was designed along with the "beer can" and the "cubes"--two smaller buildings at the base of the cylinder--by architect Harry Wolf, and landscape architect Dan Kiley. They used mathematical principal known as the "Golden Proportion", which includes a logarithmic pattern known as the "Fibonacci" series, to decide everything about the layout. The tower's height and radius, the size of the cubes, and the width of the park's pathways all conform mathematically.

Dan Kiley is well known in the landscape world. A project he designed in Columbus, Indiana is listed as a Natural Historic Landmark--the only landscape architecture registered on that list. You can learn more about Kiley's work, and the park, here.


Small paving stones.

But Kiley's creation isn't looking very good these days. Since it hasn't been managed by the city parks department, it fell into disrepair. The carefully placed paving stones began to sink into the ground...


Kiley Gardens' sunken landscape. - Buy this photo

...making some areas look more like a graveyard than a park. The homeless moved in. Water began to leak into the underground parking garage below the park, which led the owners to drain fountains and plant grass in a large reflecting pool. And perhaps the final insult came, when the city of Tampa talked about removing the park altogether, in order to make room for--brace yourself for the irony--a new art museum.


Path through the trees, connecting the "Beer Can"
with the current Art Museum.

Things are looking up, though. In 2006, the city of Tampa proposed a plan that will help preserve the park. It plans on buying the "cubes" and using them for its art museum. The deal will also include money to renovate the park. Rumors are, it could become a "sculpture garden", possibly providing a space for Tampa's infamous "exploding chicken".

Will the park be restored to reflect Kiley's original vision? Only time will tell. But even in its current state of untrimmed crape-myrtle trees, slumping grass, and dry fountains, it's worth a visit.

The entire park is an internet hotspot, allowing workers in nearby buildings to bring their laptops with them, and work in the park on their lunch breaks.

UPDATE: In spring, 2006, the City of Tampa cut down all the crape myrtle trees.  What better way to become a "city of art" than to destroy part of the architect's original vision?  Granted, the old trees hadn't been properly pruned in years, and were growing wild.  But to just mow them down?  It's a terrible example of city officials who just don't get it.

You can read more reaction from local folks on the Sticks of Fire Blog.

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