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As Central Avenue block languishes, owner and St. Petersburg leaders seek pick-me-up

ST. PETERSBURG — Stuck between the busy downtown waterfront and Tropicana Field, the 600 block of Central Avenue has languished in purgatory for years.

The northeast half of the block was once a colorful bazaar of antique shops and other small businesses that drew foot traffic. Three years ago, those businesses closed. A developer bought the property with plans to build a 15-story mixed-use complex called 601 Central.

Then the real estate market tanked. A new owner with similar ambitions now holds the reins, but the project lacks investors.

These days, the once attractive row of shuttered storefronts between 601 and 659 Central Ave. — the historic Crislip Arcade among them — attracts graffiti, vandals, panhandlers and homeless people who sleep in doorways or break in to sleep inside.

"We've been trying to clean up this area for a couple of years," said Tim Ganley, who co-owns Tim Ganley Fitness at 664 Central Ave. As he said this, a man urinated in public view on the street.

Recently, Ganley and others got local elected officials to pay attention to the block of Central, whose neighbors are the State Theatre, the Arts Center, several bars and other small businesses.

The most ambitious idea yet is to fill some of the storefronts with art studios. That push is being led by City Council member Leslie Curran and Thomas F. Gaffney, the owner of the unoccupied real estate.

Gaffney, an investor who bought the row of properties for $2.3 million in July 2008, said that it would be unprofitable for him to refurbish the existing one-story buildings but that he is willing to help clean up the street.

To that end, Bob Devin Jones, a founder of Studio@620, which is around the corner, has begun discussions with Gaffney about getting a visual artist into the Crislip Arcade with reduced rent.

Gaffney intends to demolish the structures and build anew once the market improves. But because of a City Council resolution protecting the Crislip Arcade's historic status, the row cannot be razed without financing and a development plan in hand. The arcade's facade must be incorporated into the new building, and other architectural details must be replicated.

"For now, I'm very happy that a business owner that owns that much property in downtown St. Pete that is completely bare and in shambles is willing to work with the city," Curran said.

In lieu of renters, another idea is to plaster the storefronts with plywood and bring in an artist to donate time to create a tasteful mural, Curran said.

Last week, the city began removing old benches and pruning trees on the street. In coming weeks, benches with bumps that deter sleeping will be added, along with better lighting. Sidewalks will be cleaned and parking spaces restriped.

City Council member Karl Nurse has also proposed extending the downtown no-panhandling zone, which goes as far west as Sixth Street, to Eighth.

"None of these things, individually, are a big deal, but collectively it gives us a fighting chance to recapture that block," Nurse said.

The problems of the 600 block are nothing new for Central Avenue business owners. For years, business associations have sought continuity of the downtown, Dome and Grand Central districts and beyond. Curran is organizing a council workshop this summer to try to bridge the areas.

Meanwhile, merchants like Lou Rusnak, 73, are desperately waiting for change. Rusnak opened Talk of the Town thrift store in 1972, when Minshall the Florist and other businesses that are now shuttered were thriving.

"When they cut out these stores," he said, "that was the turn for business going bad."

Luis Perez can be reached at (727) 892-2271 or lperez@sptimes.com.

As Central Avenue block languishes, owner and St. Petersburg leaders seek pick-me-up 05/26/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, May 26, 2009 2:31pm]
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