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St. Petersburg seeks to brand downtown medical, academic hub

ST. PETERSBURG — Just south of downtown, a quiet section of St. Petersburg has evolved into a jumble of research, academics and jobs.

Hospitals, government agencies and a university campus employ at least 8,000 people. About 6,000 students seek college degrees. The district's economic importance to the city has few geographic rivals.

Now, community leaders want to add one important quality — a common identity.

"You need something to market, something everybody knows,'' Mayor Bill Foster said. "You want to be able to say, 'Meet me at the Corridor' or 'I'll be at University Place.' This is the next greatest economic project that is going to happen in this city. To make that a tightly knit area.''

The idea extends beyond a pithy name and clever logo.

City officials are discussing street closings, signs, bike trails, leafy pedestrian walkways and major changes to Fourth Street S. Better pedestrian flow, plus a name for the district, will stimulate collaboration and attract new players, officials said.

"Individually we are impressive. Together we are transformative,'' said Kanika Tomalin, Bayfront Health's vice president of external affairs.

"We can compete with the Research Triangle all day long if we package this right,'' said Amy Maguire, vice president for government and corporate relations at All Children's Hospital, referring to North Carolina's university-heavy Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill region.

Right now, the district is roughly 30 square blocks, with three focuses:

• General academics — represented by the University of South Florida St. Petersburg.

• Marine science — including the Florida Institute of Oceanography, USF's College of Marine Science, engineering firm SRI International, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and the U.S. Geological Survey.

• Medicine — including Bayfront Health, USF Health and All Children's, now merged with Baltimore's Johns Hopkins Medicine.

For years, some of these institutions batted around the idea of finding a brand that could bridge Fourth Street, a busy artery that separates the inland hospitals from the waterfront academic and ocean research complex.

The arrival of Johns Hopkins Medicine in 2011 accelerated that push for commonality.

"You are talking about the Harvard of health care being dropped into this mix of people already trying to find opportunities,'' said All Children's president, Dr. Jonathan Ellen.

Johns Hopkins runs its hospitals on an academic model, with high profile residency programs and research, Ellen said. It was only natural to seek stronger ties with USF St. Petersburg and the ocean researchers.

USF "has programs focused on early childhood development,'' he said. "Well so do we.''

Another possible collaboration: Johns Hopkins has interest in delivering oxygen to premature babies — perhaps by immersing them in a womblike liquid environment. Engineering firm SRI International might share expertise because of its work on oxygenating seawater.

"That's what makes a university culture particularly good for collaborations,'' Ellen said. "When you … play at that high level and get all these smart people in the room together, they find the overlap.''

Walkways, outdoor spaces and a brand name for the district will stimulate cafes and small retail outlets, he said.

"It creates a there, there,'' he said. "You can say, 'We are having a farmers market in Blank. We are conducting a lecture series in Amy Village.' ''

References to "Blank" and "Amy Village" reflect one vexing hurdle: All Children's Maguire and representatives of other institutions have formed an informal committee to come up with a name. But so far, they cannot agree on one.

Rejected offerings? Discovery District, Bayboro District and University City.

University City came from former Mayor Rick Baker, referring to Johns Hopkins, USF St. Petersburg, USF Health, Bayfront Health's new affiliation with the University of Florida and SRI's Stanford roots.

"Other cities would kill for this,'' Baker said. "We just need to tie it together."

One key change would be slowing traffic on Fourth Street and dropping Third Street to a crawl or eliminating it to allow better east-west pedestrian movement, he said.

USF St. Petersburg officials declined to comment, saying they are working through strategic plans with a new chancellor. But city traffic director Joe Kubicki said the school has expressed interest in some pedestrian-friendly changes.

The biggest change would be a quicker way out of the district — a traffic light and new interstate entrance lane giving northbound traffic on Fourth Street direct access to Interstate 175. Currently, only southbound traffic can enter the interstate there.

"With the way Johns Hopkins and USF St. Pete are growing, anybody but the blind can see that that area has a huge future,'' Kubicki said. "We need to be designing a transportation system to accommodate it.''

After settling on a name, several institutions said they want to hire an urban planner to sketch out walkways, green spaces and future expansion areas. They would coordinate with others working on St. Petersburg's master waterfront plan.

St. Petersburg developer Darryl LeClair has taken an informal whack at planning the district. An All Children's board member, LeClair has offered freelance ideas for big community projects in the past, including a downtown waterfront plan and a Major League Baseball stadium on land he owns in Carillon.

Without payment or authorization, his company, Echelon, drew up renderings showing a doubling of the student body at USF St. Petersburg, including new dorms, stores and garages that could also serve the medical complex.

Hospitals offer training and jobs for students, he said.

"They need accountants and financial people. They need PR folk. There are going to be opportunities on the neonatal ward,'' LeClair said. And students "aren't going to want to get in their car and drive three blocks to get there.''

His drawings also include a sandy beach in Bayboro Harbor and an open air amphitheater in Poynter Park for concerts and other public gatherings.

"You want to engage the public,'' LeClair said. "We can do this for chump change. Stuff that is big magnitude but cost efficient.''

St. Petersburg seeks to brand downtown medical, academic hub 09/06/13 [Last modified: Sunday, September 8, 2013 11:12pm]
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