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How about some pickleball under those Tampa Bay highway overpasses?

Updated: Jul 12, 2023

In Tampa, St. Pete and beyond, the space beneath overpasses is being used for cool neighborhood amenities including dog parks.

Zena Gilbert and her dog Alfie play at the Deputy John Kotfila Jr. Memorial Dog Park underneath Tampa's Selmon Expressway near downtown.[ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]

The space under a highway overpass can be pretty underwhelming — sidewalks, maybe some litter, pretty much a place to pass through.

But not so at one particular underpass beneath the Lee Roy Selmon Expressway that runs between Tampa and the east county suburbs.

There, canines regularly romp and wrestle at the shady, sprawling Deputy John Kotfila Jr. Memorial Dog Park — a fenced and turf-lined neighborhood amenity between downtown Tampa and Ybor City under the hum of the traffic above.

Dogs romp at the Deputy John Kotfila Jr. Memorial Dog Park at 705 Raymond St. under the Lee Roy Selmon Expressway.[ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]

Dogs romp at the Deputy John Kotfila Jr. Memorial Dog Park at 705 Raymond St. under the Lee Roy Selmon Expressway. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]

“I love this,” said Julie Curtiss, who visited recently with dogs Snoopy, Bullet and Little Girl. For her, shade from the highway overhead is a big plus: “Even when it’s drizzling, I can bring them and it’s under cover,” she said. Future plans include adding electric vehicle charging.

“If they did more of them” — as in, dog parks under overpasses — “I would go,” Curtiss said.

That could happen, given the urban transportation trend of using those underutilized areas for something more interesting: Parks, trails, public art, activities like yoga or just pleasant spaces in which to hang out.

“Underpasses, if you were lucky over the years, you got good pedestrian amenities,” said Greg Slater, executive director and CEO of the Tampa Hillsborough Expressway Authority, which owns and operates the Selmon. “But to create active spaces — I think it’s a really cool thing to do.”

Miami has taken up the concept in a big way with its Underline, a 10-mile linear park, urban trail and public art project on land below the Metrorail.

Locally, planners considered the Underline and other ideas in their current 4.5-mile project to add a lane in each direction on the Selmon Expressway between South Tampa and downtown. All the underpasses are up for significant makeovers as part of the project.

Neighbors have been deeply involved in plans for the underpass at Bay-to-Bay Boulevard and MacDill Avenue near the city’s iconic waterside Bayshore Boulevard. Residents had made clear they wanted a dog park, but there was enough space for more. A survey filled out by more than 1,200 of them also showed strong support for pickleball courts and space for a farmers market, playground and food truck events.

“I think people would love that — take the dogs to the dog park and get some food at the food truck,” Slater said.

The survey results were shared with the project’s shortlisted design-build firms, and when a design is picked, renderings will be released to the public.

Kim DeGance, former president of the Palma Ceia Neighborhood Association, said they saw other states utilizing their underpasses, “so we thought, why not be able to utilize that one?” She called not having something there “a waste of space.”

The $225 million Selmon project — including that Bay-to-Bay underpass slated for big improvements — is expected to be finished by the fall of 2028.

“It’ll be fantastic for the neighborhood,” said Kelly Flannery, president and CEO of the South Tampa Chamber. “Because it will create a walkable space for people to use.”

Down the road near the Selmon Expressway downtown, there’s also talk of an outside auditorium space for public meetings.

The Florida Department of Transportation is looking at maximizing underpasses on Interstate 275 in Tampa with public art and enhanced lighting to make them safer with “more of a community feel,” said Justin Hall, director of development for District 7. They’re also talking pickleball and a dog park.

In downtown St. Petersburg, improvements are in the planning stages at the Interstate 175 spur. Ideas have included a continuous trail, pop-up parks and crossings into the neighborhood, Hall said.

Slater says if he’s ever having a tough day, he can walk over to that under-the-highway dog park — named for a Hillsborough County sheriff’s deputy killed by a wrong-way driver — and watch the dogs play.

“What’s really important,” he said, “is that the expressway is not only serving the community, but a part of the community.”

BY SUE CARLTON Times staff

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