ST. PETERSBURG — Horse-drawn carriages trot alongside million-dollar homes. A historic hotel houses a rundown convenience store. Homeless men and women sleep in the shadows of City Hall.
Downtown St. Petersburg is a microcosm of urban life, celebrated by city planners and the hometown denizens who remember a not-too-distant past marked by vacant buildings and crumbling structures.
The boarded windows were long ago replaced by shining glass towers and trendy restaurants hawking fusion cuisine. These days, there are more than 7,000 residences downtown, up nearly 2,000 from nine years ago.
But St. Petersburg's bustling hub is not without its problems. Panhandlers increasingly interrupt diners enjoying an outdoor meal. BayWalk, once heralded as the catalyst of downtown's new life, was foreclosed upon and sits half empty. Residents have turned a cold shoulder toward the outdated, struggling Pier. Vacant office space is at a 10-year high.
On the eve of a new mayoral administration, we asked six community leaders and downtown stalwarts two questions: What is the biggest challenge facing downtown and what is the solution?
What downtown leaders say
Marilyn Olsen, president of the Downtown Neighborhood Association
Challenge: Lack of civility. Our most pressing problems cannot be solved until we all listen to those with whom we disagree.
Solution: Search for common ground and solve the problems you can. Build on the strength of that relationship. We live in paradise. Smile.
Doug Illman, owner of Push nightclub
Challenge: We are going to need a leader with vision.
Solution: Downtown is the heart of the community and you've got to develop it so that national chains will want to build their retail or restaurants downtown. It can't be Ybor. It can't be all clubs and bars. You've got to have art, you've got to have retail, you've got to have restaurants and you've got to have residential close enough to support it. You have to have balance. This has to be a place where people can come with their families. They should convert Central Avenue from the Yacht Club to Eighth Street into a pedestrian mall.
Mark Johnson, founder of Saturday Morning Market
Challenge: The biggest opportunity is not about what's wrong, but what could be more right? That is, I think what makes downtown work is the sense of a bustling city on a waterfront. The thing people really love is eating in cafes outdoors.
Solution: Don't try to fix the Pier. Invest that energy in dramatically improving the downtown waterfront experience. We need waterfront activities all along the waterfront. In Portland, Ore., there is a fountain that is one of these high-tech fountains that spouts water out and there are colors. They are incredibly engaging. I've seen them in four cities now and they are a magnet for people. Another idea would be to install exercise experiences every 200 yards or so. Another option that is already occurring is improving the walking experience, (like) the redesign of the sidewalks along North Straub Park. You want to have all kinds of things that are connected and a really great walking and biking experience that connects it all. A piece of this would be to seriously explore what to put at Spa Beach and that approach to the Pier, because people frankly are not going to walk out to the Pier. So leave the Pier as a passive experience that doesn't require $50 million on infrastructure and put that experience on the waterfront. Add something to Spa Beach that is Pier-like, cafes, shops.
John Long, president of the St. Petersburg Area Chamber of Commerce
Challenge: From our members, the biggest challenge facing downtown is BayWalk. Without a strong BayWalk, it negatively impacts the business environment and excitement that is usually found in downtown St. Petersburg.
Solution: Our executive committee supports the mayor's new BayWalk revitalization plan. They see changes do need to be made and that the various options in the plan gives the new ownership the option to grow Baywalk, and the new design and the streetscaping and the potential new activities in BayWalk will create a refreshing environment. Certainly, you can't have a strong city without a strong downtown and you really need to be able to have, when folks are visiting or when folks want to go shopping or when folks want to go to the movies, they need to know there is a core place to go.
Dan Harvey, downtown real estate investor
Challenge: The biggest challenge is keeping baseball downtown.
Solution: Just knowing a baseball stadium is coming in six or seven years might fill up the condominiums downtown. New development would also keep existing things afloat. Back in the old days, when Bay Plaza was around, the Vinoy wasn't sure what they were going to do, but when they saw baseball coming, that was a catalyst to keep the Vinoy around. The Rays need to see with the redevelopment of a new stadium also comes maybe a train depot, and the development of the Tropicana Field site. Some theaters could go there. People would make investments in hotels and maybe businesses would move downtown, things would happen. So this is about more than just baseball.
Emil Pavone, president of the Downtown Resident Civic Association
Challenge: The biggest challenge facing downtown is the same challenge facing the entire city and that is the lack of a diversified economic base.
Solution: The solution to that problem is to attract diversified businesses and industries to this area. The Downtown Residents Civic Association has recently partnered with the University of South Florida, where there is a center for civic engagement, in which some of the professors have encouraged their students to work with us in developing a plan to actively solicit the movement of businesses, not the kind of low-wage businesses that are the crux and heart of the tourist industry, you know, chamber maids and streets vendors and that kind of thing, no, we want businesses that will have jobs for the graduates of the university who are trained in highly specialized areas that require the great skill that they have learned."
Cristina Silva can be reached at (727) 893-8846 or firstname.lastname@example.org.