BayWalk may soon have control over more public walkways

ST. PETERSBURG — BayWalk may soon have control over more public walkways.

Weeks after the City Council voted to give the sidewalk fronting the ailing entertainment complex to its owners, officials are working on the next phase of their multi-pronged revitalization plan: giving BayWalk some control over the public walkway and sidewalk leading to its front entrance.

Unlike the north side of Second Avenue North, the promenade connecting BayWalk and a city parking garage will remain public land. Under the plan, BayWalk would manage the promenade, controlling pedestrian traffic and overseeing retail kiosks.

City officials also plan to eventually allow BayWalk to control a portion of the south side of Second Avenue North during downtown's busiest hours through the use of a special events permit.

"It doesn't mean the public can't use the sidewalk," said city attorney John Wolfe. "It's not the same thing as a vacation."

The goal is to create an inviting, attractive and safe walkway for patrons as they leave and enter BayWalk, said Rick Mussett, the city's development administrator.

The measures are part of a sweeping revitalization plan unveiled in July to help bolster the near-vacant complex.

But some city leaders and community activists said they were unaware the plan aimed to give BayWalk authority over that area.

"That's news to me," said City Council member Karl Nurse, who was surprised to hear about the special permit.

He added, "I guess they better deliver."

Mussett said these efforts were likely overshadowed by the controversial sidewalk vacation, which divided the city and pitted economic development against free speech.

BayWalk officials have yet to apply for control over the sidewalk fronting the promenade. The special permit, which would need to be approved on an annual basis, is unprecedented in its reach.

It potentially would give BayWalk control over the sidewalk on Thursday and Friday nights and all day on Saturday and Sunday, every week.

However, the plan is not entirely new.

BayWalk's original owners were granted authority over the promenade at the inception of the project, when the city assembled land to help the entertainment complex get off the ground.

But BayWalk's ownership eventually splintered, leaving the structure anchored by Muvico theaters under one corporation and the retail area surrounding the city's garage and the promenade under the control of developer Fred Bullard.

City officials said they have begun discussions with Bullard to get him to give up managing the promenade.

"Our intent is to have that space be managed by the same entity that manages BayWalk," said Mussett. "It was all designed to work together."

Bullard could not be reached Friday. It's unclear if he would be willing to give up the promenade or what he would receive for doing so.

Mussett said Bullard has been open to the city's proposal.

"He really has no use for it," said Mussett.

The sidewalk vacation of the north side of Second Avenue North could be finalized next month.

BayWalk officials must first draw up easements along the sidewalk and install a marker to delineate the private sidewalk from nearby public land.

If all goes as planned, protesters removed from the area would be able to demonstrate on either side of the promenade on the south side of Second, which will remain public land.

"We have no intentions of moving beyond the area around the promenade and the street," said BayWalk property manager Thomas McGeachy.

Still, that promise did not soothe the concerns of free speech activists who unsuccessfully fought the sidewalk giveaway.

"They are continuing to find ways to take away more public sidewalks and put them in the hands of people who haven't delivered on anything and won't," said the Rev. Bruce Wright, a vocal opponent of the measure.

Chris Ernesto, an organizer for St. Pete for Peace, said neither BayWalk nor city officials have contacted the group to discuss solutions as promised prior to the sidewalk vacation.

Glenn Katon, a lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida in Tampa, has vowed to legally fight the land giveaway.

"We are kind of waiting to see what the city and the BayWalk owners do to change the landscape of the sidewalk and what they actually do to exclude people," he said.

"Even if we wanted to file something, we couldn't, because they have not cited anyone for trespassing yet."

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

BayWalk may soon have control over more public walkways 11/13/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, November 17, 2009 6:58am]

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