ST. PETERSBURG — Efforts to transform Williams Park from a homeless drug den to a flourishing playground for families and downtown workers have floundered for years.
Now, four St. Petersburg City Council members say the city must immediately reclaim the 4.3 acres in the heart of downtown from drug dealers, addicts and drunks.
The council members reacted Monday to a story published Sunday in the Tampa Bay Times about how the park has become an oasis of illegal activity from sunrise to sundown.
"I think it's a shame," said council member Leslie Curran. "We need to get a handle on this."
Suggestions include building a wrought iron fence around the park to limit entrance points, stationing more police officers at the park, increasing the staff of homeless outreach workers at City Hall and adding concession stands to attract students from St. Petersburg College.
Curran, Karl Nurse, Jeff Danner and Jim Kennedy all agree on one thing: Before any cleanup can start, the buses must go.
The park is a transit hub for 16 bus routes. Hundreds of people get off one bus to catch another at the park every day. Of those routes, 14 could be moved to another location once land is found, said Danner, who also chairs the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority.
"It has to go," Danner said. "This all ties in with our intermodal station. Money is available."
Plans for a new transit hub have been in the works since at least 2010. If that move occurs, diesel-chugging buses would no longer block the view of the park from the streets, opening up green space.
The PSTA, Danner said, also is examining problems with the bus shelters.
Transit authorities will meet next week with city and police officials to explore ways to open the bus shelters so people can't hide from passing police officers, Danner said. The meeting was planned earlier this month.
Officials have tried and failed to revitalize Williams Park for decades. Now in its 125th year, the park once hosted Presidents Ronald Reagan, Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford. It now hosts the homeless.
To neighboring businesses and residents, the park plagues some of the priciest real estate in the city. Parents no longer push strollers on its sidewalks. Downtown workers don't want to eat lunch on its benches.
As the economy rebounds, seven new projects are slated to add more than 1,000 new apartments and condo units — and presumably thousands of residents — within blocks of the park.
Two years ago, Kennedy said he tried to add playground equipment at the park, but his plan didn't gain traction.
Something must be done to change the reputation, he said, adding: "It's just a tough act."
Nurse wants to put a wrought iron fence around the park.
He plans to pitch the idea to Mayor Bill Foster and city administrators. Limiting entrance and exit points could help police control illegal activity and allow the park to be locked at night, he said.
"One of the most beautiful parks I have ever seen in Paris had a fence around it," he said. "It would provide people with a sense of safety.
Also, the city needs more police officers at the park to keep troublemakers away, Nurse said.
He lauded Curran's efforts a few years ago to launch an ongoing Saturday arts exhibit and other events at the park. Both eventually failed.
One of Curran's biggest issues involves people who aren't homeless but linger at the park all day to drink, smoke and sell synthetic marijuana joints, commonly referred to as spice.
She wants to ban stores from selling the product.
"It's going to take an enormous commitment from the city," she said.
Danner believes he has a low-cost solution.
Building concession stands with Wi-Fi hot spots could lure students from St. Petersburg College.
"Kids could take over the park," he said. "They don't come across the street."
Mark Puente can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8459. Follow him at Twitter at twitter.com/markpuente.