It connects the bay and the beaches. It divides north and south. It's the center of town but not the center of activity it once was. Central Avenue is many things to many people, making it the most eclectic thoroughfare in the county. ¶ With numerous galleries and funky shops with handcrafted merchandise, it's clearly considered the city's art district, even though the Dalí, Chihuly Collection and Museum of Fine Arts are elsewhere. As the demand for vintage clothing, furniture and decor grows, Central is known as the best hunting ground. With more than 50 restaurants and cafes, most independently owned, the avenue has foods for every taste and price. It also boasts plenty of bars, the strongest concentration downtown. The many gay-owned and gay-friendly businesses have led to Central Avenue hosting the biggest Pride event in the Southeast. And don't forget baseball. Baseball has been very, very good to Central Avenue.
The east end, even with some dirt still under its fingernails, is enjoying a resurgence, with galleries, restaurants and shops opening steadily. The west end, just minutes from the beaches, pricey neighborhoods and several country clubs, isn't considered a retail hub. In between, the 8-mile stretch is laced with salons, insurance agencies, law practices, doctors offices, auto shops, funeral homes, churches and schools.
The life cycles of Central Avenue are as different as the people and businesses inhabiting it. The city's first trolley started running there in 1905. The avenue grew to be the city's activity hub, so when Japan surrendered in 1945 thousands of residents flocked to Central to celebrate. The postwar boom brought not just retail to the avenue, but the city's first retail centers with multiple restaurants and stores grouped together. In the 1960s this border that divided St. Petersburg into north and south and, unofficially, white and black, was the backdrop for civil rights demonstrations.
The 1972 opening of Tyrone Square Mall slowly transformed Central Avenue from the center of town to a lackluster street, struggling and seedy in parts. When baseball finally came to town in 1998, a little-known place called Ferg's took off. Restaurants came and went. The city led task forces and business groups. Stretches of the avenue developed names and identities such as Grand Central and the Edge.
"It's interesting to see the cycling nature of things," said Ray Hinst, co-owner of Haslam's Book Store, which has been at 2025 Central Ave. since 1964. He has worked there for 40 years.
"Now we are back to where we used to be. We have neighbors who shop and live and work in the area," Hinst said. "People feel comfortable on the sidewalks now. That has not always been the case."
Julie Karikas, owner of Designers' Consigner at 1033 Central Ave., can vouch for that.
"When we started, we were one of the few businesses on our block,'' she said. "A lot of homeless people filtered in and out. There used to be a (nearby) day labor pickup spot."
Now, most stores for several blocks around her are occupied, and there is pedestrian traffic. She just recently started keeping the doors unlocked during business hours. Shoppers no longer have to press a buzzer to signal an employee to let them in.
"A few months ago we decided now was the time. We felt secure and safe," Karikas said.
Central Avenue is making a comeback, but it's far from being thought of as the main drag it once was.
Declaration of independents
Fast-food places, chain drugstores and discount shoe stores opened in the shadow of the original Central Plaza stores in the early 1990s. A few other chain stores (even a Starbucks) dot Central to the west, but for the most part, the street belongs to independents.
Perhaps the most anticipated arrival to Central since the Rays was Taco Bus. After more than a decade of success in Tampa, the Mexican eatery rolled to a second location, 2324 Central Ave., two years ago.
"St. Petersburg has been really good to us,'' said owner Rene Venezuela. "We have a great crowd that comes for lunch and dinner and late night after the clubs downtown close."
About the same time, but with much less fanfare, Alésia Restaurant opened at 7204 Central Ave. in a 1918 building that was once developer Walter Fuller's headquarters. The three owners paid $475,000 for the building and made extensive renovations.
"It has exceeded our expectations. I didn't think we'd be doing this well this fast," co-owner Paul Hsu said of the 90-seat eatery that features French, Chinese, Vietnamese and American cuisine.
He attributes success to regular customers from Causeway Isles, Treasure Island and Yacht Club Estates to the west along with diners who drive from the Old Northeast and downtown.
Central Avenue is, after all, a central location. That's why neurologist Gregory Scott and partners invested well over $1 million to build a three-story, Mediterranean-style office at 2201 Central.
"It's between the hospitals," he said. "We found patients at the beaches didn't want to come to downtown, and people near Bayfront didn't want to go out to Palms of Pasadena. This has plenty of parking and is convenient for most people."
While Alésia thrives west of 58th Street, the west end of Central Avenue still has more growing pains to reach the level of success seen in the east.
Karikas, who owns Designers' Consigner on the east end, also has Designer Exchange, at 7038 Central Ave. She has never had to deal with security issues, and there are plenty of neighboring businesses, from doctors offices to hair salons. But this end of Central Avenue isn't a place folks come to stroll and shop.
"I think everybody would love to see more restaurants here and a more pedestrian-friendly streetscape," she said. "It's a beautiful area and it's heavily populated. It could be a real success."
The West Central Village business alliance will soon submit a plan to the city for how to spend some of the $2 million designated for improvements between 58th Street and Park Street. Probable requests include medians with palm trees, brick crosswalks, banners with an art deco logo and street parking.
Once a conceptual design is submitted to the city, the changes could be made in about two years, according to Dave Goodwin, the city's planning and economic development director. West Central Village folks say it can't be soon enough.
"From this corner down to Park (Street), it's life in hand getting across the street," said Kevin Natal, co-owner of the Gypsy Queen antique and furniture store, at 7255 Central.
"I see people going by at 60 to 70 miles per hour," said Ellna Della Penna, of Della Penna Salon, at 7233 Central.
Tempting those drivers, whatever speed they drive, is even harder when you are tucked in the middle of a strip center. John Spiering saw his business at the New York Cafe drop 50 percent after a city inspector informed him he was violating city code with a Boar's Head umbrella in front of his eatery.
Now Spiering pays a sign waver $100 a week to draw business into his cafe, which features sandwiches and specialty pizzas.
"That's $400 a month. Do you know how many sandwiches I have to sell to pay for that alone?" he lamented. "If they want this area to really succeed, it should be a little more business friendly."
Karakis is also frustrated.
"I can't even put a sandwich sign outside. The sidewalks are horrible, and the parking needs to be improved," she said. "I'm lucky my building is free standing. There's no way to distinguish your business if you're part of a flat front strip center because you can't put a sign out perpendicular to the building."
West Central Village business owners plan to ramp up efforts to attract attention well before the new streetscape. They want to mark the area with some sort of sign on the Pinellas Trail overpass that crosses Central Avenue near 71st Street. The group also plans to start hosting street fairs and functions with music or movies in nearby Sunset Park on Boca Ciega Bay.
Next to the 5-acre park sits another challenge: the Parkview Hotel, at 7401 Central Ave. In its glory days the 95-year-old, three-story hotel hosted baseball players and bandleaders, but in recent years it declined into a crumbling, long-term-stay lodge charging low rates.
A Minneapolis investor bought it for $3.5 million in 2007 and renovated some rooms but never finished and quit paying the mortgage. Ownership reverted to Crystal Bay Properties, which has the Mediterranean-style building on the market for $2 million.
"The building is a nonconforming albatross that has blighted our neighborhoods with crime and neglect in a steady downward spiral for about two decades now," said Monica Abbott, a west-end activist and member of the West Central Village alliance.
The latest plan is for it to become a holistic medical clinic offering alternative treatments for cancer patients.
Just as independent-business people are a common thread of Central Avenue, so are the arts. Creativity abounds in the 600 Arts Block, obviously, to the Artpool complex at 2030 Central, Craftsman House at 2955 Central and beyond. Public art is also part of the street with a 10-foot-high scrap metal horse in front of Dazzio Art at 627 Central. The city's Central Avenue Art in Transit will install 10 artistic shelters, trash cans and benches at bus stops along Central.
A small colony of artists recently relocated to 2109 Central after Salt Creek Artworks closed last year.
"We were sad to leave, but we knew we wanted to be in town. We felt really excited about being on Central Avenue," said storied jazz photographer Herb Snitzer. He and three other artists have studios around a courtyard with daily open hours and take part in Art Walk.
The founders of FreeFall Theatre bought the former Second Church of Christ, Scientist for $1.5 million. They renovated the 16,000-square-foot complex at 6099 Central Ave., bringing new art to the community and new life to the avenue. Productions are the classics reinvented or edgier plays. The recent run of Spring Awakening filled 90 to 100 percent of the theater's 140 seats at every performance. Some less familiar productions fill around half the seats.
"That's the theater business," said marketing director Matthew McGee. The complex occupies an entire block, which enables FreeFall to host weddings, commitment ceremonies, movies and other events on the lawn as well as corporate gatherings in the 300-seat sanctuary.
"FreeFall is phenomenal," said Earl Waters, co-founder of David Reynolds Jewelry and Coin store, a mainstay at 4009 Central since 1981. He thinks FreeFall has brought not just more people to Central but clout by offering an experience that can't be found elsewhere in the city.
"American Stage is still wonderful, but FreeFall is more cutting edge. Some of American Stage has been less mundane since the success of FreeFall," Waters said.
McGee wishes there were city signs for the theater like the ones the Dalí Museum benefits from, since patrons come from throughout Tampa Bay.
"We are very happy with where we are," he said. "Central Avenue is getting to be the place to be."
The city intends for its Central Avenue Redevelopment Plan to improve the street's appearance, attract new businesses and help existing ones.
There are about 135 city blocks of available land between First Avenue N and First Avenue S along the Central Avenue corridor. It behooves the city and existing businesses to entice more investors.
CARP, as it's referred to, calls for more medians to narrow wide sections of the street, landscaping, overhead canopies, bicycle racks, wider sidewalks, benches, brick crosswalks, new traffic lights, artistic bus stops and streetlights. Investors and developers will be attracted by increased allowable density, reduced setbacks, allowances for taller building heights and more mixed-use options.
The biggest chunk of the $38 million plan is $25 million for a Bus Rapid Transit system. Most of the funding and time frame haven't been determined, but new crosswalks, traffic signals and lighting have already been installed in parts of the street.
Even with the art, the shops, the restaurants and the eclectic flavor, residents don't flock to Central Avenue as they once did. It's a fun place to hang out before a Rays game once in a while or for a yearly Pride event, but Central Avenue isn't a place most residents go regularly.
But neither was Beach Drive a few years back.
Times researcher Natalie Watson contributed to this report. Katherine Snow Smith can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8785.