ST. PETERSBURG — The City Council voted 7-1 Thursday to move forward with a controversial plan to privatize the sidewalk fronting BayWalk and improve security at downtown's struggling entertainment complex.
Council members stressed that the vote merely signified the start of a long public discussion.
"Nothing takes place today other than starting the public hearing process," said Council Chairman Jeff Danner.
Council member Wengay Newton cast the dissenting vote, citing concern about the land giveaway.
At least two public hearings and three affirmative votes from two different St. Petersburg government bodies need to occur before the sidewalk giveaway is finalized. City Attorney John Wolfe said the final vote would not happen before October.
The city also voted to allow patrons at the retail and restaurant complex to park free in the city's adjoining parking garage on nights, holidays and weekends for six months starting in January. The measure will cost taxpayers $96,000 in lost parking revenue.
BayWalk, which opened to great fanfare in 2000, has been plagued by financial troubles during the past two years and now sits more than half vacant.
City Hall's answer is a $700,000 effort to bolster security and upgrade the sidewalks and other areas around BayWalk. City officials say a key part of the plan is giving the public sidewalk bordering BayWalk's front entrance to the complex's owners. That's aimed at eliminating frequent protests some say have hurt business.
BayWalk's owners, meanwhile, said they will invest $6 million to attract new restaurant and retail tenants to BayWalk. But keeping the sidewalk public is a "deal breaker," officials representing the property owners said.
"Tenants are not going to rent space in the property if that is not accomplished," said the local property manager, Thomas McGeachy of Ciminelli Real Estate Services.
But critics point out City Hall has no guarantee the property owners will follow through on the $6 million commitment.
What's more, they say the giveaway would eliminate the public's constitutional right to demonstrate on public land. They consider BayWalk a gathering spot for public discussion.
More than 30 protesters stood outside City Hall Thursday morning holding banners and chanting slogans against the move.
"The city has to consider whether civil liberties are worth $6 million," said Chris Ernesto, an organizer for St. Pete for Peace, which demonstrated regularly at BayWalk in the past.
Cristina Silva can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8846.