On July 11, a group of ambitious volunteers led by St. Petersburg City Council members Karl Nurse and Leslie Curran embarked on the task of cleaning up the north side of the 600 block of Central Avenue.
The north side includes the Crislip Arcade, which was built in 1926. In its heyday it was part of a shopping district of sorts.
Most of the shops in the 600 block, including those in the arcade, were closed in 2006 to make way for a $35 million condominium project. But the project flopped when the economy soured. Thomas Gaffney, a Tierra Verde investor, purchased the stores for $2.3 million in 2008 with the intention of bulldozing them.
The closed storefronts on the north side of the block quickly became a gathering place for homeless people, which didn't sit well with shop owners on the south side.
Just as owners were complaining to Nurse, their representative on the council, a group of artists and other city leaders were in conversation with Curran about the Crislip Arcade.
Jeff Zampino of Pinstripe Marketing at 695 Central Ave. initially approached Gaffney about cleaning up the area. "We found out through the Preservation Society that the Crislip was one of the last arcades in the city, so we really wanted to do something about that," he said.
After a series of meetings, the idea of a revival was hatched.
"Initially the suggestion was, 'Why don't we board up the building and let the artists paint the outside?' " said Curran, adding that her reply was, "Why don't we take the boards down and put the artists inside?"
What has evolved is a renaissance of sorts. The groans of wary shop owners on the south side of the street have faded as a cacophony of progress echoes along the corridor. And now Gaffney, 64, says he intends to create an arts colony there.
The property has 15 to 20 units on the street front and another 14 in the arcade, Gaffney said. About two-thirds of the units are leased, and he anticipates that most shops will open by Feb. 1.
Some artists have complained that the initial lease rates are different from what they were originally told.
"The original deal was $5 per square foot for five years,'' said Gaffney.
He said some artists may be confused by the details of that arrangement, which calls for lessees to pay $10 per square foot up front — a deposit of sorts. An example: If an artist is leasing a 500-square-foot space, the deposit would be $5,000. The lessee would then pay $5 per square foot for the next five years. A year ago, the going rate for downtown was about $22 per square foot.
"There were some people who didn't have the money up front, so they were offered a lease of $8 per square foot per year," said Gaffney.
According to Gaffney, a lot of the confusion came as word spread about creation of an arts enclave. While that has been good for attracting artists interested in leasing space, it also has led to rampant rumors.
With two-thirds of the spaces leased, Curran said she is pleased with the progress so far.
"We wanted to save some of those (spaces) just to see how it plays out. To see who winds up in different spaces and determine what we want the arcade to be. The point was not to fill it out with just anybody, but to fill it with people who would be viable."
In case you're wondering what kind of shops are going into the Crislip and surrounding storefronts, lessees include glass sculptor Duncan McClellan, a Studio@620 annex, mixed media artist Katie Screvens, Judith Dazzio, an acrylic painter and instructor, and an upscale vintage clothing store.
Curran says the renaissance along the 600 block is similar to what happened years ago in Ybor City when artists went into empty storefronts long before developers took an interest in the area.
"My wish is that it (Crislip) becomes a viable art center that connects to the Beach Drive art scene, the Florida Craftsman Gallery, the Dome District and the Craftsman House in the Grand Central District," said Curran. "Whatever we can do to get those folks out in the forefront and tie them together, that will be great for the city."
Sandra J. Gadsden is editor of Neighborhood Times. She can be reached at (727) 893-8874 or firstname.lastname@example.org.