BayWalk sidewalk, security plan moves forward
ST. PETERSBURG - The City Council voted 7-1 Thursday to move forward with a controversial plan to privatize the sidewalk fronting BayWalk and improve security at downtown's struggling entertainment complex.
Council members stressed that the vote merely signified the start of a long public discussion.
"Nothing takes place today other than starting the public hearing process," said Council Chairman Jeff Danner.
Council member Wengay Newton cast the lone dissenting vote.
At least two public hearings and three affirmative votes from two different St. Petersburg government bodies need to occur before the sidewalk giveaway is finalized. City Attorney John Wolfe said the final vote might not happen until October.
The retail and restaurant complex, which opened to great fanfare in 2000, has been plagued by financial troubles in the past two years and now sits more than half vacant.
The measure is part of a $700,000 effort to bolster security and upgrade the sidewalks and other areas around BayWalk, once a symbol of downtown's economic potential. Mayor Rick Baker says a key part of the plan is privatizing the public sidewalk bordering BayWalk's front entrance to eliminate frequent protests that some say have hurt business.
If the sidewalk along the north side of Second Avenue N was private property, BayWalk's owners could more easily remove rabble-rousers and cite repeat offenders for trespassing, proponents argue.
BayWalk's owners said they intend to invest $6 million in reviving BayWalk. The private money largely would go to attract new restaurant and retail tenants.
Keeping the sidewalk public is a "deal breaker," officials representing the property owners said.
"Tenants are not going to rent space in the property if that is not accomplished," said the local property manager, Thomas McGeachy of Ciminelli Real Estate Services.
The St. Petersburg Area Chamber of Commerce and the St. Petersburg Downtown Partnership support the plan, as do many BayWalk tenants.
But critics say the effort would quash the public's constitutional right to demonstrate on public land. They consider BayWalk St. Petersburg's town square, a gathering spot for public debate.
More than 30 protestors stood outside City Hall holding banners, placards and chanting slogans Thursday to speak out against the sidewalk vacation.
"Civil liberties are not bad for the economy," said Chris Ernesto, an organizer for St. Pete for Peace, a group that demonstrated regularly at BayWalk in the past. "The city has to consider whether civil liberties are worth $6 million."
Newton and two other council members expressed concern about the city giving away public land.
Council member Jim Kennedy asked the city's legal department to add language to the resolution to start the vacation process that recognized concerns about the land giveaway.
It reads, "concerns regarding pedestrian access to the north side of 2nd Avenue North and the ability of people to assemble and to express themselves and sufficient alternatives therefore may be discussed and considered at the two public hearings which must be conducted."
Council member Herb Polson said the proposed land giveaway made him uncomfortable.
"As public officials it is our responsibility to represent everybody," he said, not just the business community.
This isn't the first time Baker's administration has attempted to banish protestors from BayWalk.
In 2004, a proposal to establish a "no protest zone" outside the popular entertainment complex was quickly dropped because critics protested the plan.
But Danner said this latest attempt to quell demonstrations can't be easily dismissed because it addresses BayWalk's struggles with a multipronged plan.
"The proposal isn't just to vacate the sidewalk and that's going to solve everything," he said.
Cristina Silva, Times staff writer