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BayWalk managers detail improvement plans to downtown residents

ST. PETERSBURG — Within a year, BayWalk patrons could be feasting on steak and shrimp, enjoying a 3-D movie or bowling in a snazzy sports lounge.

But, property managers warn, it won't be a quick turnaround.

Weeks after the City Council ceded the sidewalk fronting the downtown entertainment complex to private developers in a controversial move that pitted commerce against free speech, BayWalk still remains mostly vacant. Property managers have yet to name new tenants, existing shop owners are continuing to flee, and new merchants likely won't open shop until at least April.

"While we would love for things to happen overnight, it's going to take some patience," property manager Thomas McGeachy told a crowd of more than 100 downtown residents gathered for an association meeting Thursday night.

However, change is in motion:

• BayWalk's owners said they will seek further control over the sidewalks near the property's entrance to keep protesters further at bay. Specifically, they want a permit that would give them control over the part of the sidewalk on the other side of the street leading to the parking garage.

• Muvico has agreed to pump $350,000 into upgrading its two major auditoriums. The theater company has also pledged to eventually offer 3-D projections in its IMAX theater.

• Property managers are looking to secure a lunch and breakfast sidewalk cafe for its ground floor anchor, formerly occupied by national retailer Ann Taylor.

• The complex's notoriously faulty escalators are set to be replaced and new lights will be installed in the courtyard.

• Tenant agreements are being discussed with Splitsville, an upscale bowling lounge; Z Grille, a downtown Mexican fusion restaurant; an unidentified high-end surf-and-turf restaurant; a casual seafood restaurant; a sports bar; and a restaurant that would transform into a dance hall at night.

Property managers cited the city's decision to vacate the sidewalk fronting the property as a breaking point.

"Now that we've gotten past that hurdle, we are negotiating back and forth," said Curtis Rorebeck, senior vice president of Equity Retail Group.

City Hall is also doing its own heavy lifting to help the flagging complex:

• City officials have added additional call boxes in its adjoining garage to beef up security.

• In an effort to increase the police presence near BayWalk, officers can now stow city Segways in a storage unit in the garage.

• Two officers mounted on horses recently started patrolling the area.

• Downtown sidewalks are being ripped up and repaved in a city effort to beautify the streets linking to BayWalk. Overall, city officials said they will work to connect five major activity nodes: BayWalk, the Pier, Central Avenue, Beach Drive and the University Village shopping center area.

"We couldn't treat BayWalk just as an island," said Rick Mussett, the city's development administrator.

All related construction costs have already been approved under the city's capital improvements budget, Mussett said.

Mayor-elect Bill Foster, who attended the meeting, said he approved of the BayWalk plan.

However, he stressed word of mouth alone won't bring back customers.

"The city is going to have to market the heck out of it to make sure people are reminded it's a destination place," he said.

Still, at least one downtown business owner expressed doubt that the plan would help revive downtown's former anchor.

"Having a business in downtown St. Petersburg has been an absolute disaster," said Ian Fell, owner of Full Monty Frozen Yogurt at Second Street N.

He blamed panhandlers, rowdy late-night drinkers and a dearth of police officers.

He asked: "Who is going to be interested in coming?"

Cristina Silva can be reached at (727) 893-8846 or csilva@sptimes.com.

BayWalk managers detail improvement plans to downtown residents 11/12/09 [Last modified: Friday, November 13, 2009 1:35pm]
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