ST. PETERSBURG — Hugh Tulloch walked into the grand ballroom of the Renaissance Vinoy Hotel on Friday morning skeptical of what the strangers would have to say about the future of the city's waterfront.
He had a familiar — and in many ways, popular and distinctly local — attitude about the notion of out-of-towners from the Washington D.C-based Urban Land Institute coming to St. Petersburg and telling us what to do with our downtown.
"I thought, what in the world is this bunch of developers going to do with our waterfront?" said Tulloch, a 73-year-old retiree who lives downtown. "I think what we had at risk is the potential to destroy the magic of what we have here."
After listening to the eight-member expert panel gush for more than two hours about their week here (they loved it), offer their assessment of the waterfront (it's an asset we must protect and keep public) and share criticism (current marketing is lagging and a stronger public-private collaboration is needed), Tulloch strolled up to a microphone to offer his opinion.
"Gotta say, I'm pretty delighted," he told the panel. "You guys do seem to get it."
The panel's visit has been anticipated by city and business leaders, who paid the institute $125,000 for its analysis.
The panel, made up of experts in economics, development, urban design, real estate, marketing, land use and public-private partnerships, will produce a detailed report in 60 to 90 days. Friday's event offered the public an early rough draft.
The waterfront is a jewel to the region, the group said, and St. Petersburg is well positioned to take advantage of an emerging trend of Americans's desire to live in more urban settings.
They experts were charmed by the parks, the water, Beach Drive, Central Avenue, University of South Florida St. Petersburg, and, oddly enough, Publix (other cities would kill for a grocery store downtown, they said).
But panelists also said amenities in downtown and along the waterfront are scattered like "pearls without a string." In order to succeed, the city must make a concerted effort to link, preserve and improve the waterfront.
"This region can't take for granted that it's going to grow and prosper," said Mike Higbee, managing director of Indianapolis' DC Development Group. "An asset like the waterfront can be like a new car to a reckless teenager. ... You need to make sure to protect it."
Higbee said a good model is San Diego, which has done a good job branding itself as having an extraordinary quality of life. The panel called St. Petersburg's current marketing efforts lackluster.
Transit also is critical, the panel said, endorsing light rail. They also suggested making streets more pedestrian friendly. Other ideas include changing the name of First Street to University Way and improving signs to help people navigate.
They were most excited by the potential of the area south of Central Avenue that includes the university and hospitals, which they dubbed the "Innovation District."
"It's going to be the economic driver," said Rob Wolcheski, who specializes in mixed-use market analysis.
The group tip-toed around giving advice on the largest and most visible structures along the waterfront — the Pier, Albert Whitted Airport and Al Lang Stadium.
But they made clear all three could use a change.
Reconfiguring or redeveloping the stadium and airport could open up more land for public use, they said. Higbee also said whatever pier comes next should be viewed as a link through downtown to Mirror Lake.
Downtown also lacks enough family-friendly dining options like food trucks and a full service business hotel, they said.
Finally, they said, any changes are going to take money and heavy lifting by all stakeholders.
Mayor Bill Foster, who listened from the front row, said the panel created an "incredible pencil sketch."
"Now it's up to us as a community to fill in the color," Foster said. "Now the work begins."