Tampa Downtown Wayfinding

Lighting the Way

Tampa’s new wayfinding system shows off the city’s assets and gives it a bright new identity.

Tampa’s second-generation wayfinding system needed to connect the city’s 300,000 annual visitors to major destinations, point the way to downtown parking garages, and provide a new pedestrian wayfinding component.

Almost as important, it needed to provide the city with a fresh new identity—minus the clichéd palm tree and beach graphics many people associate with Florida.

“What we heard the loudest in stakeholder meetings was, ‘We’re not Florida, we’re Tampa,’” says John Bosio, director of MERJE (Phildadelphia), which created the urban wayfinding system installed in early 2009.

“Our downtown had evolved so much since the early 1990s when the first system was done,” says Karen Kress, director of transportation and planning for the Tampa Downtown Partnership. “We wanted to connect people to those new attractions and we also knew we needed a new design theme. We think of ourselves not as a typical Florida city, but as a place where business gets done.”

Light idea

So with palm trees, flip flops, and wave graphics crossed off their list of possible design concepts, the MERJE team worked with stakeholders to identify characteristics that could be played up in the signage program. The process resulted in a three-legged concept that is modern, emphasizes the natural environment (through a palette of blues and a bright yellow green), and leverages a plentiful local resource: light.

“Light is the perfect theme for Tampa because it’s the lightning capitol of North America,” says Glen Swantak, MERJE’s lead designer on the project. It’s an inspiration easily embraced by a community that stages the Lights on Tampa Art Festival and that named its NHL hockey team the Tampa Bay Lightning.

“We tried to come up with something that was integral to the place, something that would never change and wouldn’t become outdated,” adds Bosio. The concept also lends itself to translation in many different ways, from graphics to lighting and materials.

To district or not? 

When the Tampa Downtown Partnership initiated the wayfinding project in 2006 using tax increment financing, they intended for the new system to guide visitors by identifying new and existing downtown districts.

While that approach has proven successful in many cities, MERJE’s analysis showed downtown Tampa—with just 220 short blocks across about 760 acres—is too small to chop up into districts.

“While it looks good on paper, ultimately it would have been just confusing and cumbersome,” explains Bosio. The two districts that do show up on the new signs had developed organically over time and were well established in residents’ minds. “The most successful districts are the ones that are easily distinguished by architecture or physical attributes and are already well known,” says Bosio. “Otherwise, it’s just a new layer of information for people to process.”

Park it and walk

Kress, a transportation planner, says that 30 to 50 percent of downtown traffic in any city is looking for parking. So by adding a parking component to the system, Tampa would not only relieve traffic congestion, but also generate revenue by directing visitors to six publicly owned parking garages.

“The basic idea is to get people to the front door of their destination, then show them how to circle the block and find parking,” says Bosio. Once they park, pedestrian signs guide them back to their destination.

Parking garage identity signage, funded through the city’s parking department, is being phased in. In some cases, garages will be outfitted with real-time LED displays that report parking space availability and provide events-related information. Kiosks outside the parking garages contain maps (developed free by a local media company), and pedestrian directionals are placed nearby to provide additional guidance.

Signs to last

Given that the lifespan of urban sign systems is generally about 15 years, designing them for durability and ease of maintenance is important. And because the RFP had stipulated the new signs would be fabricated and maintained by the city’s in-house sign shop, MERJE kept the design, materials, and parts minimal. 

As part of the design development process, MERJE had two sign mock-ups produced—one by a private vendor with state-of-the-art equipment, and another by the city sign shop. “We put them up across the street from one another and had our steering committee look them over,” says Kress. “Ultimately, even though it was more costly, we put them out to bid.”

The 166 signs were fabricated by Urban Sign & Crane (Vineland, N.J.) and installed in time for the city’s hosting of Super Bowl XLII. The city of Tampa will maintain the signs.

Details count

While the process was much more complex than she had ever imagined, Kress believes the result will serve Tampa well. One of the factors in the program’s success, she believes, was working with a consultant before issuing an RFP. Collaborating with area stakeholders was another. “We won their support by listening to them and making them a part of the process.”

The new signs are modern, sleek, and memorable in their simplicity, says Kress. Her favorite part is the backsides of the vehicular signs. MERJE used the real estate to add a bold light-ray graphic that projects an unexpected splash of color onto the urban streetscape. Says Kress, “It’s a small detail that makes a big impression.”

--By Pat Matson Knapp, segdDESIGN No. 26, 2009



Location:  Tampa, Fla.

Client:  Tampa Downtown Partnership

Design:  MERJE

Design Team:  John Bosio (principal in charge), Glen Swantak (senior designer)

Consultants:  api(+): John Scheffel (local project manager/designer), F.R. Aleman Associates (traffic engineering)

Fabrication:  Urban Sign & Crane (fabrication), MasTec (installation), 3M (reflective vinyl)

Photos:  MERJE


[Sidebar:] Solar Solution

Tampa’s downtown wayfinding system continues on Riverwalk, the new 2.4-mile pathway along the Hlllsborough River. A pilot phase of seven pedestrian directional signs and eight map kiosks was installed along the first completed stretch of the path this year.

Visitors use the map kiosks both day and night, so they required a shade element as well as illumination. To support Tampa’s ongoing sustainability initiatives—and deliver power to the relatively inaccessible kiosks—MERJE looked to solar solutions.

The first design consideration was determining the size of the solar panel needed to support dusk-to-dawn illumination. “Once we figured that out, we had to decide whether it would be located remotely or integrally,” says Amy Rees, MERJE senior associate. Remote location was ruled out to avoid ripping up new hardscaping around the units.

But integrating the solar panel in a way that wouldn’t visually overpower the structure was tricky. To work it out, MERJE and project fabricator Urban Sign & Crane worked closely during several rounds of 3D rendering and animation.

“Using just 2D drawings, it was very difficult to get a feel for the shape of the canopy and how it would reveal the solar array,” says Seth Davis, Urban Sign vice president. So his team used Sketchup to create multiple 3D iterations and simulations. “It’s a great tool for visually working out how shapes can be made and fit together.”

The kiosks are 8.5-ft. tall, consisting of a 5-in.-deep aluminum cabinet flag-mounted to a steel pole. Atop the pole, a perforated-aluminum canopy reveals a 3-in. recess in which the 1-in.-thick solar array sits, with room for air circulation around the panel, a fan, and a battery pack.

Davis estimates that each of the solar-powered units consumes only 2.05 kilowatt- hours (kWh) per month, at a cost of just 20 cents—in comparison to $72 per month if the units were powered with traditional fluorescents.

Lee Hoffman, Tampa’s Riverwalk development manager, says it’s difficult to quantify the energy savings that will result when the program is in full operation. “But we’re trying to integrate sustainable elements wherever possible. It’s a principle we’re trying to instill in everything we do.”



Location:  Tampa, Fla.

Client:  City of Tampa

Design:  MERJE

Design Team:  John Bosio (principal-in-charge), Amy Rees (senior designer)

Consultants:  EDAW/AECOM (landscape architects)

Fabrication:  Urban Sign & Crane (fabrication), Power Up (solar components)

Photos:  MERJE



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