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St. Petersburg City Council to reconsider decision to give a public sidewalk to BayWalk

City Council member Herb Polson, center, asked staffers to look at other options before next week’s sidewalk revote.

CHERIE DIEZ | Times

City Council member Herb Polson, center, asked staffers to look at other options before next week’s sidewalk revote.

ST. PETERSBURG — BayWalk owners may yet lay claim to the public sidewalk in front of the ailing downtown entertainment complex.

The City Council voted Thursday to reconsider Mayor Rick Baker's plan to give the sidewalk to BayWalk, a week after the controversial measure seemingly died in a deadlocked vote.

After last week's contentious five-hour meeting, city administrators hastily met with protest groups and BayWalk property managers.

BayWalk and Muvico also followed up with tersely worded letters warning the complex's demise was imminent.

"I don't think you can overstate the gravity of where we are," City Council member Karl Nurse said Thursday. "Our children will ask us in five years, 'Dad, why are the buildings still boarded up?' And it will be because . . . when we held the lifeline, we said no."

Council members were told they had to decide Thursday whether to reconsider the measure or any future efforts would have to start anew, triggering a lengthy public hearing process.

Only Leslie Curran, Jeff Danner, Herb Polson or Wengay Newton — who voted against the sidewalk giveaway — could ask that it be reconsidered.

Polson did the honors after some prodding from council members who supported giving the sidewalk to BayWalk. "This allows us to have more information to make a decision."

Polson asked that the revote be delayed until next week to give the city time to explore other solutions short of giving away public land. Those options include greater police enforcement and traffic changes, like changing the pickup and dropoff points to the complex.

Polson also directed the city staff to seek input from teenagers, former BayWalk patrons and protesters.

BayWalk's owners have pledged to invest $6 million and secure new tenants for the struggling downtown retail destination if the city gives them the sidewalk on the north side of Second Avenue N.

The public land has been cast as the city's de facto town square by loitering teenagers and demonstrators, whom some blame for BayWalk's recent turmoil. The once popular entertainment complex is now 70 percent vacant, and retailers complain sales are down.

If BayWalk owned the sidewalk, demonstrators could be removed or cited for trespassing. Critics argue free speech is more important than economic development.

Others doubt BayWalk's success hinges on the sidewalk.

Curran rattled off the names of more than 20 downtown restaurants and businesses that have closed in recent years because of the recession.

"Who reached out to them? What did we do for them? Absolutely nothing," she said. "If anyone deserved to have their sidewalk vacated, they do."

Several BayWalk tenants advised the city this week that they would move out if the sidewalk remains public.

"Having the control of the sidewalk in the hands of the developer is going to provide greater security and safety for our customers," said Jeffrey Gaul, vice president of real estate for Chico's and White House / Black Market.

Happy Feet Plus and Muvico also said they will likely abandon BayWalk if the sidewalk is not ceded to BayWalk owners.

A handful of prospective tenants called the city's failure to cede the sidewalk a deal breaker.

Gary Grooms, owner of the Z Grille on Second Street S, said he had hoped to open a Mexican restaurant on BayWalk's second floor, but changed his mind after the council's 4-4 vote last week.

"That sidewalk has to be a pleasant experience," he said. "For us to sign a 10-year lease and invest millions of dollars just to have the same situation . . . no one is going to do that."

Splitsville, an Orlando-based bowling lounge, also dropped a plan to move into BayWalk because of the stalled sidewalk vacation.

The council's vote to reconsider the plan was a blow to free speech activists who had promised not to demonstrate at BayWalk for a year as an act of good faith because of the city's vote to keep the sidewalk public. They had planned a "yay free speech" party for Sunday to celebrate.

"This is a slap in the face," organizer Chris Ernesto said Thursday.

Earlier that day, a handful of demonstrators spoke against the sidewalk vacation outside BayWalk.

They criticized the city's decision to spend $700,000 to spruce up public land near BayWalk instead of using the money to help low-income residents struck hardest by the recession.

"Under no circumstances will we lay down if they vacate this sidewalk," said Chimurenga Waller, president of the International People's Democratic Uhuru Movement. "If BayWalk fails, then it fails."

Fast facts

What's next?

• The city is studying alternatives short of giving away a public sidewalk to BayWalk owners. Ideas include a greater police presence and changing traffic patterns around the complex.

• The City Council will reconsider the sidewalk giveaway at a Thursday council meeting.

• Want to weigh in?
E-mail the City Council at council@stpete.org or call (727) 893-7117.

St. Petersburg City Council to reconsider decision to give a public sidewalk to BayWalk 10/08/09 [Last modified: Friday, October 9, 2009 8:43am]
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