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The staff of the Tampa Bay Times

City Council reconsiders BayWalk sidewalk give away



ST. PETERSBURG -- The City Council voted 5-3 Thursday to reconsider Mayor Rick Baker's plan to cede the sidewalk fronting BayWalk to its owners.

A final vote on the measure will likely occur next Thursday.

The vote initially failed on a 4-4 tie last week, with council members Herb Polson, Leslie Curran, Jeff Danner and Wengay Newton casting the dissenting votes.

One of those council members had to change their vote for the measure to be brought back to the table.

Council member Jamie Bennett began the discussion Thursday, urging the dissenters to revisit the sidewalk vote. 

"We have seen in the community a high interest in what happens at BayWalk," he said. "I would make a request for those who did vote no last week to offer a reconsideration."

If BayWalk fails, the debate would be moot because there will be no place for protesters to demonstrate, said council member Karl Nurse said.

"I don't think you can overstate the gravity of where we are," said Nurse. "Our children will ask us in five years, 'Dad, why are the buildings still boarded up?' and it will be because... when we held the lifeline we said no."

Polson then called for a second vote on the sidewalk. He asked that the final vote be delayed until Oct. 15 to give Mayor Rick Baker and his staff time to consider an alternative solution involving police enforcement, traffic circulation and street closure for events and to seek comments from teenagers.

Polson said the majority of residents he polled were divided over the sidewalk proposal.

"This is the most divisive measure that I have seen," he said.

Curran opposed taking up the vote again. She rattled off the names of more than 20 restaurants and businesses that have closed downtown in recent years because of the recession.

"Who reached out to them? What did we do for them? Absolutely nothing," said Curran. "If anyone deserved to have their sidewalk vacated, they do."

BayWalk can succeed without closing the sidewalk, she said.

"BayWalk is not failing because of a protest group. They are failing because of poor management, poor design, poor retail mix, poor economy and a myriad of other issues," she said.

Curran, who owns an art gallery on Central Avenue , said her business has also had dark days because of the economy. "Where's my sidewalk?" she said.

Newton also spoke against reconsidering the vote. The sidewalk vacation violates the U.S. Constitution because it infringes on free speech, he said.

Deputy Mayor Goliath Davis said he meet with protesters last week to discuss the sidewalk vacation and consider alternatives.

Business leaders filed into City Hall wearing red stickers that read, "SAVE BayWalk."

Several of BayWalk's tenants had advised city officials that they would move out if they sidewalk is not made private.

"Having the control of the sidewalk in the hands of the developer is going to provide greater security and safety for our customers," said Jeffrey Gaul, vice president of real estate for Chico's and White House / Black Market.

If the sidewalk stays public, his company will likely leave. "It doesn't look good," Gaul said.

Happy Feet Plus and Muvico have also said they doubt they will remain at BayWalk much longer if the City Council does not grant the sidewalk to BayWalk's owners.

Gallery owner Mike Shapiro, however, said he doesn't mind if the sidewalk remains open.

"Even if they were to assign new tenants today, they won't show up for six months and my business can't survive for six more months," he said. "It comes down to the public. Regardless of what the City Council does or regardless of what BayWalk management comes up with, if customers who like my store or Chicos or Hurricane Pass, if they don't support the stores, at least for me, I am going to have to close."

BayWalk is already 70 percent vacant and likely cannot afford to lose more businesses.

A handful of prospective tenants also seem set against moving in unless the sidewalk becomes private.

Gary Grooms, owner of Z Grille on 2nd Street S. , said he had hoped to open a Mexican restaurant in a corner of BayWalk's second floor, but lost interest after the vote.

"That sidewalk has to be a pleasant experience," he said. "For us to sign a 10-year lease and invest millions of dollars just to have the same situation from a couple of years ago, no one is going to do that." 

Splitsville, an Orlando-based upscale bowling lounge, was also in discussions to move into BayWalk. They have since called off the deal because of the City Council's vote last week.

Roughly eight demonstrators spoke against the sidewalk vacation at BayWalk Thursday morning. They criticized the city's decision to spend $700,000 to spruce up public land near BayWalk instead of using that money to help low-income residents struck hardest by the recession and lambasted any efforts to close the sidewalk to the public.

"Under no circumstances will we lay down if they vacate this sidewalk," said Chimurenga Waller, president of the International People's Democratic Uhuru Movement. "If BayWalk fails, then it fails."

 City Hall was flooded with letters supporting and denouncing the measure in recent weeks.

"YOU are idiots!!!" wrote Melissa Clark to the council members who voted against the sidewalk vacation. "My hope is that each of you loses your job."

Diane Drutowski praised the council for not turning the sidewalk over to BayWalk.

"You made the right decision, and I'm proud," she wrote.

Cristina Silva, Times staff writer

[Last modified: Wednesday, May 26, 2010 12:11pm]


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