ST. PETERSBURG — Beneath the overwhelming noise of debate over the future of the Pier and the Tampa Bay Rays, a project that could be even more important to the city's future is about to begin.
On Sept. 9, almost two years after voters decided St. Petersburg needed a new downtown waterfront master plan, the city will host the first meeting to gather public input about one.
Independent plans have for years been developed for different portions of the waterfront, including the port, parks and Albert Whitted Airport. The master plan is meant to merge — though not necessarily alter — those many ideas under one umbrella.
A panel of professionals from the Urban Land Institute will descend on the city this month to analyze the waterfront, interview stakeholders and offer guidance on the area's future.
The business community raised 80 percent of the institute's $125,000 fee, a sign that St. Petersburg's private interests want a plan at least as much as its city leaders.
"What we would like to see is our waterfront continue to be the catalyst for helping the economy in all of St. Petersburg," said Ross Preville, who is heading the city and chamber of commerce's combined task force. "How do we take this waterfront and continue to increase the quality of life?"
Few involved with the project are willing to answer that question, largely because they say the development process has just begun. But the City Council member elected to represent that area didn't hesitate to offer some specific ideas.
"Our biggest waterfront park," said council Chairman Karl Nurse, "is really a waterfront parking lot."
Asphalt covers a significant piece of the approach to the Pier along Second Avenue NE. Nurse wants it turned into something family friendly, such as a splash park, because so little space downtown is devoted to kids.
He believes that Al Lang Stadium could be better utilized. Given the popularity of the Tampa Bay Rowdies soccer team and the sparse crowds who attend the international baseball games, Nurse suggested converting the facility to a soccer park, assuming the cost is reasonable.
The visiting panel likely will consider those ideas and more.
Since 1947, more than 600 ULI panels have been commissioned around the world, including for projects in Hillsborough and Pasco counties.
The members of the group coming to St. Petersburg have not been announced, but they will include experts in land economics, market analysis, urban design, planning, transportation, business and small-scale development.
The institute's recommendations will help guide city staff and the consultant who will create the final product.
"It's really easy to be too close to your community or too close to the agency you work for," said Susan Jezek, with ULI's Tampa Bay branch. "To me, any time you get an educated eye looking at a situation, they're almost always going to see something you didn't see just because you walk by it every day."
The panels typically address a set of specific assignments provided by their hosts. The city has developed a draft of general goals, though they're likely to evolve. Among the topics they've been asked to assess:
• How to integrate a pier into the larger downtown waterfront (this point was created before voters rejected the Lens).
• The water basin functions and access.
• Ways to better connect the waterfront to Mirror Lake and Williams Park.
• How to utilize Spa Beach's uplands.
• Possible uses of the land made available by the decommissioning of the Albert Whitted water reclamation facility.
• How to improve investment and economic development opportunities at the port.
• Options for Al Lang Stadium and its parking lot site to specifically include the Beach Drive extension concept.
The city charter requires that a new downtown waterfront master plan be adopted by July 2015.
John Woodrow Cox can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.