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Central Avenue: A boulevard of contrasts

ST. PETERSBURG

It feels like one of those confusing chain restaurants.

You know the type. One part swanky appletini joint, one part cheeseburger pub, one part kitschy antique eatery.

We're not talking food, though. We're talking Central Avenue.

Some say St. Petersburg's defining street, about seven miles and 20 minutes long, grapples with that kind of image problem. Drive from one end to the other and observe. The scene shifts.

There are busy downtown eateries like Ceviche and Bella Brava. Then, dilapidated antique storefronts. Then, big-box retail shops, Burger Kings and CVS. Then, quaint accounting offices and dentists and lawyers. Then, beach.

Does Central Avenue have an identity crisis? And for a city's mainline, is that a bad thing?

• • •

The avenue was always a mixed bag.

Development started springing up over a century ago. A father sold the street's first property to his son for $700 in 1888. In 1903, the city paved three blocks. Three years later, a group of businessmen bought and flipped the Detroit Hotel, now condos.

Central, once called "road to the wilderness," was paved west to South Pasadena in 1914. The city's first radio station operated at the west end. Retail shops and gas stations opened in the Grand Central District in the 1920s. In the 1930s, Liggett's drug store and Minshall the Florist thrived downtown, selling ladies dusting powder and baskets of flowers.

The popularity of air conditioning in the 1950s brought businesses west into new construction. An independent grocery store, put out of business by a Central Plaza Publix, morphed into an auto parts store, then a storage unit.

Tyrone Square Mall slowed the downtown scene. Projects failed or stalled, like 1973 plans for a pedestrian mall. Others eventually came to fruition, like condos and shops at 1010 Central.

These days, Central runs through five City Council districts and countless local associations.

Every section could be better, said Brian Longstreth, a real estate broker and longtime proponent of the Grand Central District. But he doesn't think it should be homogenized.

"Downtown is downtown, and you've got the Dome District, then Grand Central, then Central Plaza, then West Central, then the Central beach. They all have a distinct character that definitely could be enhanced, but I'm not sure that you want to change the character."

• • •

Seven miles is a looooong time to maintain one attitude.

"It's perfectly natural to have all these different identities, especially along a seven-mile stretch," said Darby Watson, who chairs the American Planning Association's urban design and preservation division. "But if it's something that should feel more like the gateway to your city, there are things you can do to make it more consistent."

Uniform trees. Planted medians. A consistent color theme. Eye-catching signs. Tiles in the pavement.

Each year, the planning association names the best main streets in America. Ybor City's Seventh Avenue made the cut last year, for 11 blocks between 26th Street and Nick Nuccio Parkway.

What makes a main street great?

"They really look for walkability and strong character," said Watson.

In St. Petersburg, Julie Karikas knows about walkability.

She owns Designers' Consigner, a high-end consignment shop on Central Avenue downtown, where cars are forced to slow and people flock on foot. She also owns Designer Exchange, located near 71st Street, near card clubs, motels and exactly one good lunch spot, she said. There, cars zoom by and miss her store.

"We have a lot of traffic," said Karikas, who has tried to work with neighbors to get improvements. "I'd love to see it spruced up a bit."

Two million dollars is available in the city budget to improve Central from the Pinellas Trail to the water, said City Council member Herb Polson. He has been trying to create an association of merchants to get things started, but some owners fear losing parking, business hours and control of their land amid construction.

"Not a whole lot of improvement has been done in that area in a long time," Polson said. "Something really nice could occur there. New lighting, median strips, planning a unified parking system instead of haphazard. That requires, in my opinion, the buy-in of the property owners."

Karikas admires revitalization efforts in the Grand Central District, an area west of Tropicana Field born of the Central Avenue Tomorrow initiative in the late 1990s. Today, it's a mix of arty shops and night spots like the new Queenshead Eurobar.

"It was such a needed thing to bring downtown out of downtown," said Jenifer Greenwell of Kenwood as she sat on the patio of Queenshead Eurobar recently. "Grand Central is so different in look and feel."

• • •

Around 34th Street, Central Avenue becomes a sea of stucco. Sunny's Beauty and Fashions, a large building with posters of flashy women with silky hair, sits there selling hair supplies, wigs and extensions.

"We've been here 22 years, so we have a lot of people who know us," said employee Susie Oh.

Keep driving past 49th Street, and it shifts again to law offices, dentists, eye doctors, accountants, dermatologists, insurance agents, chiropractors.

City Council member Leslie Curran has driven the stretch. She sees a solution to the inconsistency. What if people from every chunk of Central had meetings to float ideas? Could all of Central become more cohesive, more appealing?

"I think the diversity is great," she said. "It doesn't have to be cookie cutter, but what I'm saying is, how can we work together to help each other's businesses? I think sometimes districts limit themselves. If one area of town is going to have an activity on Central, hey, let's talk to the other adjoining businesses or neighborhood districts and see if they're interested."

Some people, though, are content the way things are. Take Susie Oh. Does she think the road lacks identity?

"I never really looked at it that way," she said. "I just come to work."

Information from Times photographer Melissa Lyttle and the book The History of St. Petersburg by Karl H. Grismer was used in this report. Stephanie Hayes can be reached at shayes@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8857.

Central Avenue: A boulevard of contrasts 08/01/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, August 4, 2009 4:13pm]

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