ST. PETERSBURG — A brawl erupted at a City Council meeting Thursday after council members voted to cede the public sidewalk fronting BayWalk to its owners.
The controversial 5-3 vote sent the audience into a flurry of celebratory cheers and passionate criticism that soon led to a fight.
The Rev. Bruce Wright, who spent weeks opposing the proposal, yelled: "You are so full of (expletive) it is ridiculous."
Frederick Dudley, who is the older brother of council member Bill Dudley and who had been in favor of the idea, screamed back: "Why don't you move?"
The men grabbed each other by the neck and tumbled to the ground in a flurry of punches.
Police officers pulled the men apart and then jumped on Deaton while Dudley walked around the council chambers, speaking quietly with city officials.
Eventually, both men were escorted from City Hall, arrested and charged with disorderly conduct.
The brief fight followed weeks of intense debate from opponents and proponents of the sidewalk issue who both saw the measure as a turning point in St. Petersburg's future.
At stake was the future of BayWalk and downtown's economic health, according to supporters who insisted the flagging downtown complex could not recover unless the sidewalk was closed to loitering teenagers, panhandlers and demonstrators.
Critics argued the measure established a dangerous precedent against free speech that would do little to revive a venue failing because of competition, mismanagement, a faulty retail mix and the recession.
BayWalk's owners had promised to pump $6 million in improvements into the center if given the sidewalk.
"We are pleased with today's decision and are committed to revitalizing BayWalk and making it a successful project all St. Petersburg will be proud of," property manager Tom McGeachy said in a statement. "We remain sensitive to opposing views and will continue to reach out to all community groups, including protesters, for the good of St. Petersburg and BayWalk."
Mayor Rick Baker and his staff said they spent months toiling over potential solutions with BayWalk's owners before concluding that privatizing the sidewalk was necessary to turning around the complex.
BayWalk's retail space is about 70 percent vacant, and the remaining tenants had threatened to leave if the sidewalk was not made private.
In an earlier vote two weeks ago, the council was divided over the issue, casting a 4-4 vote that seemed to kill the effort. Council members Leslie Curran, Jeff Danner, Wengay Newton and Herb Polson cast the dissenting votes then.
However, Baker and BayWalk executives quickly rallied the council to reconsider.
Polson did, asking his colleagues for a new vote on the condition that city officials reach out to opponents and explore alternatives.
That never happened. The city and BayWalk canceled two meetings with free-speech activists and then seemed miffed when the protesters said they could not attend a hastily scheduled meeting Wednesday.
A 23-page report handed to council members during a BayWalk workshop Thursday morning did not include alternatives to turning over the sidewalk.
Police Assistant Chief Luke Williams told council members that additional enforcement would not make a difference if the sidewalk remained public.
"There is ample coverage. Downtown St. Petersburg and BayWalk are safe," he said.
Baker said his staff did explore other options but found no feasible alternatives.
After the workshop, a handful of free speech activists cornered Danner outside his council office and asked why he refused to let them speak before the vote. Danner said BayWalk vowed to meet soon with the protesters.
"I was satisfied that that is going to happen and left it at that," said Danner.
Polson said he initially voted against the measure because he wanted to study the city's policy on land vacations. He did and felt comfortable the BayWalk proposal met all the criteria.
The sidewalk will be made private after procedural steps are completed. Voting in favor of the vacation Thursday were Polson, Dudley, Jim Kennedy, Jamie Bennett and Karl Nurse.
Chris Ernesto, an organizer for St. Pete for Peace, said his group and others plan to legally challenge the sidewalk vacation.
He scheduled a protest at BayWalk at 8:30 p.m. today.
"It's ironic that we had not protested at BayWalk in seven months and offered not to protest there for another 12 months," he said. "But now, because of the City Council's decision, we will once again hold regular protests there."