ST. PETERSBURG — The spot that has become the city's soapbox could soon be off-limits to rowdy teens and government dissenters alike.
A majority of City Council members said they will likely vote to give the public sidewalk fronting BayWalk to its owners to make the struggling downtown entertainment complex more attractive to tenants and visitors.
The measure is part of a $700,000 effort to bolster security and upgrade the sidewalks and other areas around BayWalk, once a symbol of downtown's potential and economic viability. Mayor Rick Baker says a key part of the plan is privatizing the public sidewalk bordering BayWalk's front entrance to bar frequent protests that some say have hurt business.
"It's a very important asset for the city," said City Council member Bill Dudley. "They will still be able to do their freedom of speech across the street."
But critics say the effort would quash the public's constitutional right to demonstrate on public land. They consider BayWalk St. Petersburg's town square, a gathering spot for public debate.
"The citizens deserve a public area in which to protest," wrote Christina Carraway in a recent e-mail to City Hall. "This is a basic American right."
The council will decide this morning whether to move forward with the plan.
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 might not happen until October.
Of the eight City Council members, five said this week they will likely support vacating the sidewalk because it will address some visitors' concerns that BayWalk has become a gathering spot for troublemakers.
"I've heard from a lot of people who want to go to BayWalk and want to do so without being confronted by protesters every weekend," said Council Chairman Jeff Danner.
If the sidewalk along the north side of Second Avenue N was private property, BayWalk's owners could more easily remove rabble-rousers and cite repeat offenders for trespassing, proponents argue.
BayWalk's owners argue the sidewalk vacation is an essential component of the city's plan.
"For us to bring patrons back to the property and for us to bring tenants back to the property we have to be able to ensure it's a positive experience," said Tom McGeachy, a property manager for BayWalk.
The St. Petersburg Area Chamber of Commerce and the St. Petersburg Downtown Partnership support the plan, as do many BayWalk tenants.
"Bottom line, it's needed," said Tom Swim, assistant manager of Happy Feet Plus.
The American Civil Liberties Union, however, says the move could spur legal challenges.
"In Washington, D.C., they don't say, 'we are going to stop protesting outside the White House because it is bad for tourism,' " said Glenn Katon, a senior attorney with the ACLU Florida. "The whole premise that excluding protesters is going to help save BayWalk is really just a farce. But even if that was true, I believe the whole notion of protecting democracy should really be an overriding concern."
A handful of critics oppose the plan for financial reasons.
The International People's Democratic Uhuru Movement has called on City Hall to redirect the $700,000 toward economic development in Midtown.
Dan Smith, owner of Pacific Wave restaurant on Second Street S, said it's not fair of the city to spend money on BayWalk when the tepid economy has left other business owners struggling, too.
"This is a facility that is already in great shape compared to everything else in downtown," he said. "The sidewalk in front of my restaurant is all slanted. It's all tore up. So let's spend the money on the entire downtown community."
Rick Mussett, the city's development administrator, said the entire city has a stake in the revitalization of BayWalk, which was built with at least $20 million in public dollars.
This isn't the first time Baker's administration has attempted to quell demonstrators at BayWalk.
In 2004, City Hall proposed establishing a "no protest zone" outside the popular entertainment complex. The measure was so unpopular it was abandoned before a scheduled council meeting to discuss it could take place.
But it seems unlikely City Hall will back down so easily again.
"This time there is a well thought out plan that encompasses the entire area," said council member Leslie Curran.