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As Bill Edwards prepares to buy BayWalk, issues await

A bicyclist passes by BayWalk, which has been troubled by a sidewalk controversy, and dwindling tenants and customers.

CHRIS ZUPPA | Times (2010)

A bicyclist passes by BayWalk, which has been troubled by a sidewalk controversy, and dwindling tenants and customers.

ST. PETERSBURG — Buying BayWalk could be the easy part.

If Bill Edwards succeeds in closing on downtown's moribund shopping and entertainment complex on Sept. 15, he'll inherit some pressing issues that cloud its future.

He'll have to deal with a sidewalk dispute and this question: What mix of stores, restaurants and clubs does Baywalk need?

Almost immediately, Edwards will be forced to decide if he wants to privatize the sidewalk in front of BayWalk. Though it was ceded over nearly two years ago by the City Council in one of the most controversial votes in recent local history, Mayor Bill Foster didn't transfer the sidewalk to BayWalk because certain conditions weren't met. Edwards would have until Oct. 22 to meet those conditions or risk having to reapply — and force another vote — to take over the 5,705 square feet of public right-of-way.

Though the deadline makes it the most urgent issue, the sidewalk could be easiest to resolve.

In October 2009, the City Council granted BayWalk control of a public sidewalk at its entrance. Although free speech advocates opposed the move, a majority of the council sided with the complex's management. It claimed that private control of the sidewalk was necessary to turn away teens and protesters, who were made scapegoats for poor attendance.

But after the vote, BayWalk lost more tenants and attendance continued to drop. Meanwhile, the owners, 153 2nd Avenue North Holdings, a Maryland company, and CW Capital Asset Management, a Massachusetts company, didn't file the necessary paperwork to formalize the privatization of the sidewalk.

The ordinance expires Oct. 22, said Rick Mussett, senior administrator of city development. If he wants the sidewalk under his control, Edwards would need to file a design plan that shows how the sidewalk would be marked private — through the use of signs, landscaping or other features — to avoid confusion, and have it approved by the city staff before the deadline.

"It could be very simple," Mussett said of the plan. "I don't think it would take a long time."

Yet Edwards said he doesn't know if he wants the sidewalk.

"At this moment, I do not know what I care to do, whether it's worth bothering with," he said

He envisions sidewalk cafes at BayWalk, but not necessarily on the sidewalk in question.

"I'm going to try to use every square inch of property to make it really cool and have it so every piece of that property is being used," he said.

At least one activist who once protested at BayWalk, Chris Ernesto with St. Pete for Peace, urged Edwards to keep the sidewalk public.

"Protesting had nothing to do with the demise of BayWalk," Ernesto said. "Keeping it public would be a good way for BayWalk to start off on a new note."

A second issue is what to do about BayWalk's largest tenant, Muvico Entertainment. In July, the theater chain sued BayWalk, seeking unspecified damages for plummeting attendance that it alleged was caused by the property's neglect by the current owners.

Edwards said Tuesday the lawsuit must be resolved before he closes. "If I don't get clear title, there's no deal," he said.

An assistant for Muvico chief executive Neil Bretan said the movie chain had no comment. Edwards has been talking with Muvico representatives about his hopes for BayWalk and said they seemed pleased.

"I'm impressed with them," Edwards said. "They've done a phenomenal job of keeping up their building. I was on the top floor of Wells Fargo looking down at the roof of BayWalk and it's the biggest mess I've ever seen in my life. I'm looking at Muvico, and it's a beautiful tan roof, their air conditioning is covered."

Edwards said Baywalk's physical status, it seems, is much more daunting than its legal problems.

"I'm probably going to have to replace the roof," he said. A designer from Los Angeles is coming into town next week to put drawings together of what a new and improved BayWalk might look like.

But the sidewalk, lawsuit and upcoming renovations are a prelude to the main issue that would confront Edwards: filling the downtown center with tenants and customers.

So far, Edwards said he has a lot of ideas of what might go into BayWalk but he doesn't have a firm plan nailed down.

So far, he has a fan in Mayor Bill Foster.

"I think (BayWalk's) prospects are wonderful," Foster said. "I've talked with Edwards. We did some brainstorming about the property, nothing concrete. But he's got a really good vision for it if he does acquire title."

At least one decision on BayWalk may not be up to Edwards.

"I don't know what it's going to be called," he said. "Maybe I should have a contest."

As Bill Edwards prepares to buy BayWalk, issues await 09/06/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, September 6, 2011 10:47pm]
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