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Baywalk and other urban venues face complex problems

When BayWalk debuted in 2000 with its mix of shops, restaurants and movies, St. Petersburg joined a long list of U.S. cities that have banked on such projects to revive sleepy or seedy downtowns. ¶ In Florida alone, Jacksonville had its Landing, Orlando its Church Street Station, Miami its CocoWalk and Bayside Marketplace. Tampa had just opened Centro Ybor and would soon unveil Channelside. ¶ BayWalk, like the others, would be an "enormous'' step toward creating a vibrant, livable downtown, raved then-St. Petersburg Mayor David Fischer. ¶ At first, the Mediterranean-style complex seemed to fulfill its promise. City officials say BayWalk drew as many as 3.5 million visitors a year. ¶ Today it is a ghost town.

All of the restaurants are gone except an ice cream shop, a sushi bar and a tiny pizza place. Among the few remaining tenants is the Muvico theater chain, which threatened to leave until the City Council voted Oct. 15 to give control of the sidewalk to BayWalk management.

That action will remove — at least from the entrance — antiwar protesters and others accused of scaring away patrons.

But BayWalk, built with some $20 million in tax dollars, still faces huge challenges.

Of similar public-private ventures in Florida, the only other in such steep decline is Church Street Station in downtown Orlando. Still, Church Street enjoyed a terrific run from 1974 to 1988, becoming Florida's No. 4 tourist attraction before Disney and Universal built their own dining and shopping villages.

BayWalk's nearest competitor, Tampa's Channelside, also has had its troubles. But it is doing better than BayWalk, thanks to a ready supply of customers who can stroll over from a cruise ship port, an aquarium and a 21,400--seat arena — none of which BayWalk has nearby.

BayWalk's small size hurts, too. Unlike the huge CityPlace in West Palm Beach, it doesn't have the space for a Macy's or a Publix that could routinely attract locals.

And unlike the most successful ventures nationally — Boston's Faneuil Hall and Baltimore's Harborplace — BayWalk isn't in a major city of great historic importance.

It has been three decades since the first such project was built. And time is making it clear why some of them do well, many struggle and others flop.

The thriving ones "tend to be in a really interesting location, like Faneuil Hall, or on the water and in a setting so nice it's hard to fail,'' says Timothy Chapin, an expert on urban planning at Florida State University.

"Also, these projects very rarely succeed if they are the first thing on the ground. They don't create a vibrant downtown, they add to a vibrant downtown, like the icing on a cake. In Baltimore and Boston, interesting things were going on already and concurrent investments were already being made.''

A savior emerges

In the prosperous years after World War II, millions of Americans bought big, new cars and moved to the suburbs. Downtowns everywhere were in decay by the 1970s when developer James Rouse emerged as their potential savior.

He hit on the idea of "festival marketplaces'' — safe, attractive complexes that would lure people back downtown with a mix of restaurants, speciality shops and entertainment. Typically built in partnership between city governments and private developers, they would act as catalysts for wider downtown redevelopment.

In the mid '70s, Rouse turned Boston's 18th-century Faneuil Hall into the heart of a complex that saw hordes of tourists where Samuel Adams once urged independence from Britain.

The success of Faneuil Hall and Harborplace, which in 1980 transformed a gritty area near Baltimore's Inner Harbor, had cities nationwide eyeing festival markets as the key to urban renewal. But in studying the phenomenon, Georgia Tech professor David Sawicki found worrisome aspects.

Located on smaller parcels of land, the markets were far more expensive to develop than suburban malls because they needed parking garages, lacked room for major department store anchors and had less leasable area.

Instead of creating new retail activity, festival markets sometimes drew business away from stores elsewhere in the city. Baltimore lost hundreds of retail jobs in the three years after Harborplace opened.

Among Sawicki's most troubling conclusions: Cities often jumped on the festival market bandwagon without adequate research into what their own communities needed, wanted and could support.

In his 1989 study, he predicted that the soon-to-open Underground Atlanta — another Rouse project — would falter because it was based in part on the notion that a lack of downtown activities was hurting Atlanta's convention trade.

That was a myth. Sawicki found the convention business was increasing and conventiongoers' main concerns were traffic and crime, not the lack of entertainment. Nevertheless, taxpayers poured $113 million into the project.

Two decades later, Underground Atlanta struggles as forecast, plagued by what many view as its dreary, dangerous location. And Sawicki says his other concerns about festival markets hold true today, including that cities rarely have the in-house expertise to effectively negotiate with developers on subsidies, parking deals and the like.

City staffers "are outmanned incredibly, they don't ask the right questions and they get taken to the cleaners,'' he says.

As for the markets themselves, "most have become sort of local or regional shopping malls filled with franchises like the Gap and stuff,'' Sawicki says. "Most regions or cities haven't had enough interesting indigenous business to actually make it unique.''

Adapt or die

The Jacksonville Landing has had its ups and downs since opening in 1987 with $20 million in public money. Yet it has managed to survive despite several strikes against it.

Jacksonville was the smallest city to land a Rouse marketplace, and differed from others in that it had few tourists or downtown residents. Parking was (and is) a problem; the city never built a promised garage.

The Landing "was a little ahead of its time,'' acknowledges Rachel Nudge, the public relations director.

In recent years, though, the project has benefited from residential construction spurred by the 2005 Super Bowl and what Nudge calls a "chameleon-like'' adaptability.

The original tenants included Victoria's Secret and other clothing shops that had prime spots overlooking the St. Johns River. As those stores pulled out, management realized it made more sense to put restaurants on the waterfront so diners could enjoy a view as they ate.

The Landing, though smaller than BayWalk, now has 10 restaurants and night clubs plus a food court. Unlike BayWalk, it is also doing well enough to offer free live music and other events to lure customers.

"These merchants do have a hard time, and they have an especially hard time this year,'' Nudge says. "But when the economy is down, that's when we get most creative.''

At the other end of the size spectrum is CityPlace, sprawling over several downtown blocks in West Palm Beach. After opening in 2000, it suffered from the perception it was simply a bigger version of exclusive Worth Avenue in Palm Beach.

"People looked at CityPlace and thought, 'Wow, this is expensive,' '' says Carey O'Donnell, who handles public relations for the $500-million venture. "It was something we fought for the first three or four years.''

Gone are the shops selling $300 bikinis, replaced by moderately priced stores. This summer, CityPlace restaurants boosted lunch traffic by giving $50 gift certificates to the first customer responding to a promotion on Twitter. Themed restaurants like Taverna Opa — where patrons dance on tables — appeal to people looking for the excitement of a foreign vacation without the expense. Or so the theory goes.

Like BayWalk, CityPlace once had problems with too many unchaperoned kids. It solved that by imposing a curfew and charging to park in the garages; teenagers no longer drive in and party on the roof.

The key to a successful downtown shopping and entertainment complex "is to keep it safe, clean and market it,'' O'Donnell says.

"And the tenants have to match your market. You really have to have good market research and without that you're just going to keep making mistakes about what people want and are going to support.''

No point staying

Can BayWalk survive?

"I think it's done,'' says Charles Keysock. "I had to leave St. Pete because it was so slow.''

Until last month, Keysock ran an art gallery on nearby Beach Drive. But he has moved to Channelside in Tampa.

"Compared to St. Pete, Tampa is 100 percent better. I see more people in a day than I did in a month in St. Pete.''

Amy Bromley also left downtown St. Petersburg. But as a former BayWalk tenant, she is more sanguine about the project's future.

"I was there eight years and I saw how it could be and I know it will rise again,'' says Bromley, who moved her furniture and accessories store, Being, to a larger location on busy Fourth Street N. "It was just vibrant.''

The problem with protesters has been overblown, Bromley says — "We're in a city and things are going to happen.'' But her business suffered when the city made First Street two-way, eliminating some parking places near Being's side door. And 90-minute parking spots made it hard for patrons to fit in a movie and dinner.

To recreate its lively early days, BayWalk needs more bars and restaurants, Bromley says. Then adds: "If I knew what it was going to take to revitalize BayWalk, I'd buy it.''

Mike Shapiro, whose crafts gallery is among the few remaining tenants, says management was slow to react when he and others began complaining in 2006 about the swarms of teenagers on weekends. Protesters, the BayWalk foreclosure, some well-publicized downtown crimes and the opening of a new movie theater in Pinellas Park also hurt business.

"There was just a series of unrelated actions and events that contributed to one giant downward spiral that's spanned at least three years,'' Shapiro says.

BayWalk's new owner, CW Capital, has said it plans to invest as much as $6 million to spruce up the complex. Two restaurants have been "very receptive'' to moving in, though it likely would be next spring before they opened, says Curtis Rorebeck of the leasing agent, Equity Inc.

"The thought is we've got to land a couple of anchor restaurants so we have a story to tell'' to other potential tenants, he says. For now, he adds, BayWalk is working with existing shops and restaurants to help them "hang on'' but wouldn't say if that included rent reductions.

Not a dead end

With Rouse dead and his company sold, festival marketplaces and similar projects have long since lost their allure as the be-all and end-all of downtown redevelopment. But most have survived in some form; the few that failed tended to be in smaller northern cities like Flint, Mich.

"There's a natural ebb and flow of what's hot today isn't necessarily hot 10 or 20 years from now,'' says Thomas Chatmon, executive director of Orlando's Downtown Development Board. "That's why downtown redevelopment continues, it's evolution, it's ongoing. It's not just a single or event or project.''

BayWalk's problems, while substantial, don't necessarily spell doom. Unlike Church Street Station, it is close to one of Florida's prettrettiest urban waterfronts. Nearby condo towers are filling up.

And, as Chapin of FSU notes, the recession has taken its toll on restaurants and retailers everywhere, not just in inner cities. As the economy perks up, downtown St. Petersburg will become "an important urban center,'' he predicts, thanks to its museums, parks and growing stock of housing.

Nationally, "a lot of trends suggest downtown will become more viable as a place to live and work and recreate, and I think it's in the public interest to pursue projects like this,'' Chapin says of BayWalk and others. "Despite the failures, these projects in the long run have their payoffs.''

Times researchers Carolyn Edds and Mary Mellstrom contributed to this report. Susan Taylor Martin can be contacted at susan@sptimes.com.

Baywalk and other urban venues face complex problems 10/23/09 [Last modified: Monday, October 26, 2009 2:50pm]

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