ST. PETERSBURG — A few months ago, eight strangers came here to immerse themselves in the city's downtown.
St. Petersburg gets thousands of visitors every year, but these ones were different. They were a team of professionals from the Urban Land Institute, with specialties in everything from real estate and economic development to infrastructure and city planning.
They were being paid by the business community and the city to provide an honest assessment of the area, as well as suggestions for improvements.
"Most of us here are preconceived to something," said Ross Preville, head of a community task force focused on downtown and the waterfront. "It was really a fresh look by people who have no skin in the game for what happens next."
The panel's final report is now complete. Among its recommendations:
• The city needs to pay more attention to the southern end of its waterfront, especially the area that includes University of South Florida St. Petersburg and the hospitals, which the report dubs "Innovation District."
• The city should invest in public transportation, including light rail and fixed streetcar lines along Second Avenue N from Mirror Lake to the Pier, and from Fourth Street from Williams Park to 22nd Avenue S.
• The city should increase the number of places boats can dock, making downtown more accessible by water.
• A movable pedestrian swing bridge should be built linking Vinoy Park to Spa Beach Park.
• The city should create more bike lanes and a bike-share program, and make streets more pedestrian friendly.
• Bay Shore Drive should be redesigned into a "convertible" paved street from the Vinoy to the Dali Museum. It would be set at the elevation of the park, allowing a more seamless transition to the water when the street is closed, perhaps for events like the Saturday Morning Market.
• The report also includes smaller recommendations, like holding more events at Williams Park, adding more public art and renaming First Street to University Way.
Preville, who is the public policy chair for the Chamber of Commerce, said he was pleased by the report and thought it was interesting that the team didn't just focus on the waterfront.
"They talked a lot about connections," Preville said. "The thing I didn't fully appreciate was the disconnect between the waterfront and some businesses."
Panel members also said that going forward, the city must rely on a stronger public-private partnership to make changes. It also lauded the protection of the waterfront for public use.
The goal now, officials said, is to not let the report collect dust.
The report likely will help shape discussion as the city moves forward with an existing effort to create a downtown waterfront master plan. The city in December issued a request for qualifications from firms interested in developing the master plan.
Eighteen teams applied for the job, which listed a budget of up to $500,000, by the Jan. 17 deadline. Last week, a volunteer committee whittled the list to seven, tossing those that didn't meet minimum requirements, didn't seem like they could handle a project of this size or those that seem focused more on design than planning.
"This is for visionary purposes," said Mike Connors, the city's public works administrator. "This is a master plan. Planning takes precedent."
The committee will meet with the short-listed teams on Feb. 28, then rank its top three. The interview portion of the meeting is exempt under Sunshine laws, the city's legal department said. But the committee's deliberations — likely to take place that afternoon — will be open to the public.
The teams under consideration include: AECOM; Dover Kohl & Partners; Ecology and Environment; EDSA; Houseal Lavigne Associates; Renaissance Planning Group; and Wallace Roberts & Todd.
Officials will take their recommendations to City Council on March 6. The goal is to approve an agreement with a firm by April 17.
For more information about the ULI report or the downtown master plan process, visit http://www.stpete.org/downtown_waterfront_master_plan.
Kameel Stanley can be reached at email@example.com, (727) 893-8643 or @cornandpotatoes on Twitter.