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St. Petersburg's Beach Drive is 'best place to be'

ST. PETERSBURG — Life along Beach Drive begins early. Lines full of tourists wait for the Chihuly Collection to open, residents walk their dogs and restaurant workers begin raising umbrellas and clearing tables.

The restaurant tables that dot the street are full by noon, before Beach Drive slows down to catch its breath before happy hour and dinner. Then, it comes alive again.

Business owners have flocked to Beach Drive in the past few years essentially on the promise of what it would become. Today, with its art museums, fine dining, parks and condos, Beach Drive has grown into St. Petersburg's place to be and be seen.

Why did they open there? Well, business owners say, why not?

"It's like if you go to New York City and you say, 'Why did you pick Fifth Avenue?'  " said Philippe Berriot, who owns Cassis American Brasserie. "Because it's the best place to be."

The transformation on Beach Drive is a few years in the making. When Steve Westphal opened the Parkshore Grill in 2006, it was one of the first new restaurants on the Drive.

Westphal was the first tenant to sign on to the condominium, retail and dining complex that became Parkshore Plaza and marked the beginning of the Drive's revitalization.

When the mixed-use project opened, Beach Drive Retail director John Hamilton Jr. told the St. Petersburg Times that his company had big hopes for the area. Hamilton's father, John Hamilton Sr., owned much of the land along Beach Drive.

"Dad has always said he wants this to be the Rodeo Drive of St. Petersburg," Hamilton said then.

Since the Parkshore Plaza opened, Beach Drive has been a flurry of activity. Rumen Gavrilov opened Nola's last year. Westphal, 400 Beach Drive Seafood & Tap House. Berriot's Cassis opened in April and he plans to open a bakery this fall.

"You could see five years ago that it was going to be the up-and-coming place to be," Westphal said.

Business owners and residents cite the waterfront, the parks and the area's walkability. One can easily walk Beach Drive from Bayfront Tower to the Vinoy in well under an hour.

They also cite the arts scene. The Morean Arts Center's permanent Dale Chihuly Collection is the newest addition. The collection was what attracted Gavrilov to Beach Drive when he opened last year, and he says that business has increased by about 25 percent since it opened July 12.

Paul Carder, director of marketing and communications for the Chihuly Collection, said the exhibit has been at or near capacity every day since it opened.

"Many of those people probably wouldn't have come otherwise," Carder said.

Westphal said the Chihuly, next to 400 Beach Drive, has prompted an increase in lunch visitors, happy hours and Sunday brunches. The extra customers from Chihuly have helped during the traditionally slow summer season.

Beach Drive is the type of place where everyone knows everyone, said John Psomas, who owns his own painting company and works along Beach Drive "more and more" since the first condos went up.

Psomas, who lives in Safety Harbor, said Beach Drive has a similar small-town feel. He enjoys coming to Beach Drive even when he's not working.

"I love the energy of the nightlife," he said. "It's eclectic, it's artsy and it's safe."

The sense of community along Beach Drive was in part what prompted Claire Vinet's move there from Montreal 10 years ago. People are more relaxed, nicer and happier along Beach Drive than elsewhere, and that hasn't changed even as the Drive has gotten busier, she said.

Go anywhere else in Pinellas, she said, and you can tell that people are suffering from the recession. Beach Drive is more insulated from those worries.

"This is not representative," she said. Beach Drive's good fortune leaves "nothing to complain about."

That makes the area a good place for businesses to move and grow. Bella Brava is set to reopen at the corner of Beach Drive and Second Avenue NE later this summer. The more businesses on Beach Drive, the better, Berriot said.

"If you know you have many things to do, you will come," he said, and more options mean more people in the area. "You want people passing by your door."

There's little competition between the restaurants, he said, because they all realize they can't have the same customer every night.

"Even if you love us, you don't want to eat here every night."

Westphal agrees. He said business at the Parkshore Grill has only grown, even after it was joined by other restaurants.

"When you build an Outback and then put a Carrabba's next door, they both get busier," he said. "Whenever more activity came to Beach Drive, more came to the Parkshore as well."

St. Petersburg's Beach Drive is 'best place to be' 08/17/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, August 17, 2010 3:39pm]
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