Whither the waterfront

SCOTT KEELER   |   Times
Published October 25 2013
Updated October 25 2013

An expert panel from the Urban Land Institute is preparing a final report on the St. Petersburg waterfront. The idea? To offer guidance from the fresh perspective of informed outsiders. The group was chaired by Mike Higbee, an Indiana-based developer and former development director for the city of Indianapolis. The final report is expected around year's end. Higbee agreed to answer some questions from Perspective editor Jim Verhulst.

1 You had never seen St. Petersburg's waterfront before, right? Your first impression?

The setting, weather, boats and water combined to make me feel I was on vacation rather than gearing up for a week of hard work. I wanted to explore both the waterfront and downtown the minute I arrived.

2 The preliminary report points out that for all of its glories, 40 percent of the waterfront has limited public access or none at all. How much more should be opened up?

As much as possible. Over 100 years ago this waterfront was converted from a working waterfront to one that invited the community to engage it in an assortment of active and passive uses. A key concept that the panel wanted to stress was improving the connections between the University of South Florida St. Petersburg and the marine science cluster to the central waterfront. The role the waterfront plays in serving the entire community should be respected and continue to evolve. The addition of the museums and the university are good examples. These uses expand the waterfront's customer base while at the same time offering new opportunities.

3 It's easy to walk or bike between the Snell Isle Bridge and Demens Landing, but south of there, the waterfront is quite cut up, between the airport, the Coast Guard station and even USF St. Petersburg. Realistically, what can be done — in the short- and then the long-term — to tie the waterfront together all the way down to Lassing Park? And how serious are you about a pedestrian bridge across the Vinoy Basin?

The Urban Land Institute panel recommended reducing the larger development "footprints" that obstruct access to the waterfront. The airport and Coast Guard footprints reconfigured and reduced will create new opportunities not only on the waterfront but open up other public-use opportunities.

Short-term, the objective may be to better utilize what waterfront access exists — increased transient boat slips, kayaking-canoeing and improved beach areas, for example. Also, short-term, create a continuous pedestrian-bike path through the waterfront park from one end to another. Long-term, such a path may or may not run continuously along the waterfront's edge. What is important is that the waterfront continues to provide a diverse set of public uses from one end to the other. Our panel felt that the bridge across the Vinoy Basin offered the public another opportunity to get close to the water and enjoy space not readily accessible. The community needs to determine if this is a priority.

4 The draft report alludes to the contentious debate over the old Pier and the Lens. Practically, given that there simply will never be unanimous agreement, how can the city make solid choices with community support about a city pier? How do you engage the public without planning a project to death?

A good question with no easy answers given the many diverse views that exist regarding the waterfront. More than likely, proposed significant change on the waterfront will always be a complicated and messy process. What is clear is that the community wants a voice and to fully understand the details when it comes to a land use change or new improvement in the waterfront area.

Our panel suggested several organizational changes in how the waterfront is maintained, managed and programmed. An entity that has as a key priority the study of improving the waterfront as an asset serving the greater St. Petersburg and its visitors likely makes sense. This entity must be seen as objective and transparent in its mission. Over time, hopefully a measure of trust will be built and a process created that will allow for constructive and exciting changes and improvements.

5 Broadening that point to the whole waterfront: Your draft report calls it "sacred space" and notes that community planning is "messy and difficult" and that the current process might even be broken. So what's the way forward?

It is important to say while the community planning has been messy, the outcome, thanks to community leadership — both past and current — is to be applauded. The community has done a good job of prioritizing the waterfront as an amenity that should be managed carefully. That being said, maintaining it, making sure it evolves to meet the needs of a changing population, and continues to be the place where the community gathers is critical.

The ULI panel believes it is time for the community to establish an organizational structure to assure that the waterfront continues to be a high-quality asset which serves the community. The waterfront has several critical issues that must be addressed over time. As stated earlier, there must be a trusted entity that can lead the community through a healthy discussion and ultimately a decision that allows the waterfront to change and evolve. Denying change out of fear is not good for the waterfront, long-term.

6 While we're on the topic of change, what about Al Lang Field? What should that land be used for? Is it time for the ball field to go away? And put what in its place?

This is one area where the community could have done a better job of stewardship. Let's focus on the southern third of the waterfront. In its current form it is a hodgepodge of uses, underutilized land, with unfortunate "disconnects" between the waterfront and downtown, Lassing Park and Old Southeast. It is clear this area has been of concern for a while. Unfortunately, special interests and distrust have conspired to prevent a healthy dialogue, let alone any real progress in improving this part of the waterfront. Again, the airport and ball field represent large footprints.

At the very least a repositioning of these uses should be considered. Not to support some new private development, but to allow for growth and connection in this traditionally active section of the waterfront. The opportunities for medical and environmental benefits to emerge from this area are tremendous while still supporting some level of recreational use as well. A viable planning initiative for this area is long overdue.

7 The draft report points out the need to tie the waterfront better into the city to the west, even as far as Mirror Lake. If you stand on Second Avenue N and face the water, you can imagine possibilities, but realistically, how do you make any of them happen?

Plan for it! There are and should be more synergies created between a revitalizing downtown and the people's place — the waterfront. Street design, transit links, well-designed pedestrian ways, merging downtown and waterfront events and venues should all be considered.

8 The report mentions the need to keep public space public but that the city needs a new model, where it shares the load instead of carrying the load by itself. What does that mean? Could you provide an example?

Maintenance, management and improvements to the waterfront should be more than one organization's priority. Right now it is a line item in the city's budget. The city has done a good job of making sure the waterfront is not treated as just another city park. Our panel spent quite a bit of time discussing how to create an organizational structure that assures all aspects of the waterfront would be someone's No. 1 priority.

As you can imagine, the skill sets required to maintain and repair the waterfront's improvements are very different than that of managing and programming its events and public activities. Also, planning for future improvements and enhancing public land use and activities is an important ongoing function.

An entity entrusted with guiding the community in its discussions about the future of the airport, the ballpark and how the university grows in the waterfront area, to name a few current issues, likely would improve the discourse and decision making going forward. An organizational chart that includes city planning, the Chamber of Commerce, along with entities concerned with maintenance, conservancy and programming was outlined in our presentation and should be considered.

9 Name three quick and simple things that could improve the St. Petersburg waterfront in a week or maybe a month.

1. In a concise and straightforward manner provide an assessment of the physical condition of the pier and what is needed to make it safe and sound.

2. Hold a community forum with USF St. Petersburg that highlights and promotes the potential of the university in creating a dynamic and unique economic development engine for St. Petersburg and the region.

3. "Test drive" the idea of closing Bayshore Drive for either the farmers market or other "events" to see how it works.

10 Okay, now name three hard and difficult but worthwhile things.

Create the organizations that will protect and enhance the waterfront so it continues to be a diverse and valued asset for decades to come.

Maximize the economic development potential as represented by the research and development connected to the environmental and medical sciences which are now emerging at the southern tier of the waterfront and extending west into the downtown area.

Build and formalize the links between downtown and the waterfront. All of these, if given focus, will reap significant dividends both economically and in the quality of life for St. Petersburg and its residents.

11 As an outsider, what did you see that longtime locals might have missed?

I am sorry to be repetitive but the synergy that exists between downtown and the waterfront. They both have the potential to make the other better and more interesting. They provide a contrast that is attractive to residents, businesses and visitors. Understanding how to link these two significant assets to better serve their broad customer base should be a priority going forward.

12 If you were king of the waterfront and could do anything, what would that be?

Activate the south end as a center for culture and education, establish a diverse set of outdoor venues in the mid and northern sections becoming more passive the further north you go, and create a linear pedestrian and bicycle trail from one end to the other that also loops through a good section of downtown. The good news is there will never be a king of the waterfront. The people, hopefully with a trusted adviser, will determine its future.

13 If you come back in a decade, what would you hope to find?

A waterfront and downtown that supports thousands of visitors each week and helping to stimulate significantly more growth than is currently occurring in St. Petersburg.

14 Last question: Have to ask, did you see a dolphin?

Not while we were working. I stayed over one night and walked the waterfront on Saturday. I not only visited the Saturday market but saw several excited young children, with better eyes than mine, pointing to something in the water. It was several dolphins playing around the boats leaving the basin. Not something I see every day in Indianapolis.