In the early 1900s, at a time when most waterfront cities had ports and industrial plants, a crusading editor named W.L. Straub pressed this city to make its waterfront a public park. Today, 100 years later, St. Petersburg has the third-largest downtown waterfront park in North America, behind only Chicago and Vancouver. A spiky skyline has taken shape with six new condo towers rising in the past decade alone. So, with so many new skyscrapers and such varied architectural styles, did we do a good job of framing the unique waterfront park that Straub and other city pioneers left us?
We turned to urban design specialist Vikas Mehta, an assistant professor of urban design and architecture at the University of South Florida, for the answers. Mehta, who teaches students how to come up with urban design visions, has been to St. Petersburg more than 20 times. He has visited the Dalí Museum and the Pier. He has eaten at Ceviche and Chappy's. But he has never worked on any city projects.
One day recently, we walked the waterfront with Mehta — from the Vinoy hotel to the new Dalí Museum.
Mehta called St. Petersburg's waterfront "a wonderful, dynamic public space" with a good mix of sports, cultural and entertainment venues. He suggested the city might think of its waterfront as a unique series of coves and harbors, each with its own individual character that could be more clearly defined.
He felt the city needed to do a better job of signaling that a street had reached the waterfront with a "design intervention," such as a gazebo or some other "folly." He said the city might draw more visitors to the Pier by making the journey there more interesting, perhaps with vendors.
As for the city's skyline, Mehta liked some of the city's newest buildings, like Signature Place and Ovation. He said they reflect contemporary architecture instead of parroting the Mediterranean Revival roots of the city's oldest buildings, such as the Vinoy. Not all buildings in a city have to match architecturally, he thinks.
"What that does is it lets history sort of announce its own position," he said, "and it sort of explains the time and the way the city's grown and the city's presence over decades and centuries."
Mehta said he was more concerned about what the buildings did at the street level and how they framed the waterfront. He said arcades that provide shade and shelter should be part of the design guidelines for any building in sunny St. Petersburg.
Beach Drive condo towers have risen under three generations of zoning regulations.
Bayfront Tower, for example, was built with virtually no rules. The clunky building stretches like a sumo wrestler to all four corners of a full city block, nothing but concrete and steel for 27 floors.
Another generation of zoning regulations produced condo towers like Cloisters and Florencia, which were built about a decade ago. They don't take up every square inch of their city blocks, but these towers were not as successful at creating an inviting streetscape.
Today's zoning ordinances call for the tall part of a building to be built far back from the street's edge, with a two- or three-story base along the edge of the street that attracts city life. Parkshore Plaza and 400 Beach Drive are examples of this, and Mehta pointed out that those storefronts draw the most pedestrians.
To be sure, the place once known as "God's waiting room" now has a selection of sidewalk cafes. People are moving around the city on Segways and rickshaws and horse-drawn carriages.
But, according to Mehta, there's room for improvement. We realize his view of St. Petersburg's waterfront is subjective. Take it for what it's worth: one man's opinion.
Times researcher Shirl Kennedy and staffer Barbara Moch contributed to this article. Leonora LaPeter Anton can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8640.