Carlton: St. Pete, keeping it real

Can this thriving city build tall buildings and still hang on to its essential funkiness?
Central Avenue, the heart of thriving downtown St. Petersburg. [TIMES (2018)]
Central Avenue, the heart of thriving downtown St. Petersburg. [TIMES (2018)]
Published April 24
Updated April 24

On a sunny weekday morning, I'm sitting in a funky St. Petersburg coffee shop way too cool for the likes of me.

Up at the counter at Black Crow Coffee Co., Mayor Rick Kriseman waits in line for his caffeine behind other locals near a sign that says vegan butter coming soon. We are just off Central Avenue, which spills into downtown proper and which, if you listed good things about St. Pete, would definitely rate.

Once upon a time it was so dead here Kriseman wasn't sure he would stay. Now? "It's so cool to brag about," he says.

The thriving downtown and surrounding environs seem to be at a moment. More tall buildings are coming, to the consternation of some. Meanwhile, the place hums with variety and personality. Art, restaurants, retail, grocery stores — yes, that's plural — the waterfront, walkable streets and actual things to do make it a place to envy. (Being able to afford to live in or near downtown — well, that's a subject for another day.)

So maybe figuring out how you grow without losing what's best about you is a good problem for a city to have.

People worried: What do we do about chains coming in? "That was the big fear," says the mayor, sipping. "The rents would go up and they'd force the little guys out and the chains would come in." Officials turned to other cities to see how they handled this but couldn't find a fit for St. Pete.

Which brings us to the Storefront Conservation Corridor plan that just got a nod from the city council.

City staff walked the walk to measure the storefronts along specific stretches to determine small, medium and large businesses. The plan, generally speaking, will regulate the size of storefronts on a long stretch of Central from 31st Street to First Street and along Beach Drive near the waterfront. It establishes a maximum number of large storefronts and a minimum of small ones. It also includes incentives for small businesses.

"So the concept is, whatever currently exists as far as layout and small, medium and large stays," Kriseman says. As a for-instance, three small businesses forced out by escalating rents couldn't be sold as one big one. The goal isn't to keep what's in those spaces forever, or to ban chains, but to try to make sure a walk down the street keeps the current vibe.

As will happen when people care about the place they live, not everyone's happy. Some want chains banned, period. Others think it should only apply to new construction. Some business types feel thwarted, like a building owner who pointed out that his tenant, a locally-owned business, can't expand. There will be corners to rough out here, adjusting to do. But doesn't it sound like a start before too much of what's good is gone?

On a long morning walk down Central toward the waterfront, new construction is so enthusiastic in some spots you have to cross the street to another sidewalk. Shops and bars are housed in charming old brick storefronts with original names on them. A bodega where they cash checks sits across from a day spa. There is a book store to get lost in, a laundry list of restaurants, and places to get a tattoo, a homemade ice cream sandwich, a fancy cocktail, sushi or $1 drip coffee. From outside, you can hear early patrons at the 84-year-old Mastry's Bar having a spirited discussion about the Rays.

"We think we found a good sweet spot," Kriseman says of the plan, "that doesn't exist anywhere else in the country."

Contact Sue Carlton at scarlton@tampabay.com.

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