ST. PETERSBURG — The City Council rejected a plan to cede the sidewalk fronting BayWalk to its owners Thursday, casting a shadow of uncertainty over the future of downtown's fallen entertainment complex.
The council refused to so much as consider the matter, voting 4-4 against a motion to vote on the controversial plan that pitted First Amendment rights against corporate interests and economic development.
The tie vote was a resounding loss for Mayor Rick Baker, whose staff crafted the ordinance and lobbied on its behalf in recent weeks.
The defeat came after nearly four hours of public comments and an hour of tense discussion among council members. The dissenting votes were cast by Leslie Curran, Jeff Danner, Wengay Newton and Herb Polson.
"I find it really hard to believe that we couldn't bring them all together and come up with a solution," said Curran, who urged BayWalk's owners to reach out to free speech advocates.
The council's decision could make it difficult for BayWalk to close deals with a handful of prospective tenants its owners had lured with the promise of securing the sidewalk. Roughly 55,000 square feet of BayWalk's retail space sits vacant. Muvico Theaters' longtime presence also hangs in doubt.
The measure would have allowed BayWalk's owners to remove undesirable patrons from a stretch of public sidewalk on the northern side of Second Avenue N frequented by anti-war demonstrators, advocates for the homeless and loitering teenagers.
"We just have to go back and reassess the situation," said Thomas McGeachy of Ciminelli Real Estate Services, BayWalk's property manager.
More than 150 people crowded into City Hall Thursday morning for a heated public hearing where business leaders faced off against a host of impassioned political activists.
Critics decried giving away public land and hampering free speech rights.
Others expressed doubt that BayWalk's owners would follow through on the promise to invest $6 million in the property.
"This is just a plain lousy deal," said political activist Michael Fox.
Proponents, including the St. Petersburg Area Chamber of Commerce, St. Petersburg College and the St. Petersburg Downtown Partnership, applauded the land give-away as a step toward reining in the unruly behavior some fear has chased customers away from BayWalk.
"Relinquishing the sidewalk of BayWalk to its owner and development team should be a no-brainer," said Tom Sexauer, president of the Downtown Business Association.
Baker and his staff relentlessly pitched the proposal to council members and downtown business leaders in the days before the vote. They shot down less permanent solutions, such as temporarily ceding the sidewalk to BayWalk during weekends or holidays.
Still, council members, portrayed by critics as Baker's rubber stamp, could not be swayed.
"It shows that the council does have a backbone and does have a stake in the social issues that come up," Danner said.
Danner said he feared the land give-away would provoke other struggling business owners to demand free land from City Hall.
Council members said they doubted closing the sidewalk would solve the complex's many problems.
Curran and Newton questioned whether crime would decrease at BayWalk if the sidewalk was private.
"I don't know," said police Chief Chuck Harmon. "I don't want to speculate."
Council member Karl Nurse, along with Jim Kennedy, Bill Dudley and Jamie Bennett, voted to move the plan forward.
"We have to turn this around," Nurse said. "I don't think asking the protesters to protest across the street is as nearly a difficult a choice as the consequences of saying no."
City Hall has ceded various strips of public sidewalks and alleyways to property developers in recent years.
However, the city's longtime economic investment in BayWalk, coupled with its popularity, set this land deal apart.
Promoted early on as the city's town square, BayWalk quickly became a gathering spot for teenagers, anti-war demonstrators and late night revelers.
A previous effort to cede the sidewalk was swiftly abandoned after drawing public outrage.
But BayWalk's recent economic troubles added a new layer to the ongoing debate.
The complex's storefronts and dining areas are mostly vacant. Moviegoers are flocking to theaters in Pinellas Park. As attendance dwindled, protesters also opted to stay away.
"We need this to happen in order for our business to survive," said Mike Wilson, Muvico's senior vice president of strategic corporate development.
In a separate vote, the City Council agreed to continue to provide Muvico's customers free parking at its BayWalk garage if the theater moves forward with a $750,000 makeover.
The revamped theater will include two restaurants and lounge balcony areas for patrons 21 and older and an updated IMAX theater.
But Wilson warned Muvico might not stick around if the sidewalk remained public.
BayWalk has struggled to repair its embattled image since before the complex went into foreclosure in January.
BayWalk's new owners added dozens of security cameras throughout the complex in recent months. Plans to repair BayWalk's escalators are in the works, as are new landscaping, lighting and paint.
Managers are pursuing local, family-friendly restaurants to occupy the center's mostly vacant second floor.
Those deals are now uncertain, said McGeachy, BayWalk's property manager.
"Our prospective tenants made it unequivocally clear that they will not sign a lease unless the sidewalk is vacated," he said. "Without tenants there can be no revival of BayWalk."
Meanwhile, with the land remaining under the city's authority, council members are already demanding St. Petersburg amp up its police enforcement at BayWalk in the future.
"We need something so when people walk in they see police officers on every corner and the people feel safe," said Newton.
Harmon said the Police Department already patrols the area regularly.
"We've done exactly what we need to do from a police perspective there," he said. "I don't know what else we can do."