ST. PETERSBURG — Christmas at BayWalk was not merry last year.
A series of shootings and brawls among a large crowd of teens in and around the downtown entertainment complex ended with one person wounded, several pepper-sprayed and many arrests. The melee further cemented the perception that crime and loitering at BayWalk was out of control.
"People said, 'Why would anyone go there and risk that kind of scene?' " said Patricia Easton, 52, a downtown resident who vowed never to return after the shooting.
As the holiday approaches, police and community leaders say there is no cause for concern. They say the complex's reputation as a meeting place for rabble-rousers and lawless youths is partly to thank for the change.
That perception — coupled with the souring economy and BayWalk's own financial troubles — has reduced attendance at the shopping plaza, creating a more subdued environment in recent months.
City Council member Karl Nurse admits he was once reluctant to take his wife to BayWalk for their weekly date.
"If I went to a late movie, by the time I came out I was not comfortable. There were hundreds and hundreds of teenagers and lots of testosterone and live music and bars that were getting people drunk," he said. "But these days, it is pretty quiet. All the reasons people were afraid to go by BayWalk have dissipated."
Police records paint a more complicated picture of BayWalk's criminal challenges.
Calls to 911 from BayWalk, the movie theater and an adjoining city parking garage climbed to 509 this year, up slightly from last year. The calls ranged from residents seeking noncriminal help to reports of burglaries, brawls, public intoxication and criminal mischief.
Some of the problems center on the city's Midcore parking garage adjacent to BayWalk. Since 2004, at least 20 percent of all police calls involved the garage.
"It's not as lit as it could be," said Mercy Murphy, 28. Her husband's briefcase was stolen from his BMW in the garage while the couple watched a movie at BayWalk in January. "We came back and the window was smashed out. You'd think someone would hear that or see the glass if they had been patrolling."
Still, Murphy said, the car burglary could have happened anywhere.
"It hasn't deterred us. We still go down there, but we usually don't stay very late because there is a younger crowd down here and you just don't want to get in the middle of that," she said. "I would rather now go to Pinellas Park for the movies over BayWalk."
Evan Mory, the city's parking manager, could not be reached for comment Friday.
As a precaution, police will be out in force on Christmas Day patrolling the area for potential troublemakers and idle schoolchildren on winter break. But they don't expect a sequel to last year's chaos.
"We are not expecting as large as a crowd this year," said police spokesman Bill Proffitt.
Owner Fred Bullard said extra security guards have helped keep order. The economic downturn also has kept thrifty residents at home, especially cash-strapped teens, leading to a quieter shopping experience for those still able to spend, he said.
"They don't have as many people at the shopping malls. There is no reason why we should be different," Bullard said.
Some of the groups blamed for BayWalk's decline insist they have little to do with the violence at the entertainment complex.
Chris Ernesto, an organizer for St. Pete for Peace, a group that sponsored weekly protests, said the media have inaccurately linked BayWalk's decline with peaceful antiwar demonstrations. He declined to comment further.
"People don't like going through the intimidation of walking through a picket line or a demonstration," said Bullard. "It makes people uncomfortable."
Marlene French, 64, said she quickly got fed up with elbowing her way through crowds of teenagers.
"Parents just used it as a cheap babysitter," she said. "They would drop off their kids and wouldn't pick them up until after midnight."
Retailers also argue that last year's brawl and a similar incident in 2005, in which 17 people were arrested on charges ranging from disorderly conduct to battery on a law enforcement officer, are isolated incidents.
"If the adults would come back to BayWalk, the kids would go away," said Mike Shapiro of Shapiro's art gallery. "If there are a lot of adults here, kids don't want to be here."
On a recent evening, it seemed both teens and adults had opted to stay away. The complex's half-empty restaurants and vacant storefronts set a serene scene.
"I think it's a nice place and it is definitely safe," said Megan Martin, 26, as she sipped a cosmopolitan during happy hour at Grille 121. "But don't tell anyone, then they might all come back."
Cristina Silva can be reached at (727) 893-8846 or [email protected]