Downtown St. Petersburg has seen an amazing and exciting renaissance during the past 15 years. Downtown is once again the city's cultural and social center. Residents of the city's west-side neighborhoods and beach communities who rarely ventured downtown 20 years ago now visit regularly for restaurants, cultural events, movies, baseball games and general urban life. A younger population now mixes pretty comfortably with the city's families and senior residents.
All great, but there's a question about downtown's resurgence that begs for an answer: Where's the business?
City leaders and planners generally describe successful town centers as places to live, work and play. The successful formula functions like a tripod. If one leg is shorter than the others, the entire structure is unstable.
The positive evolution of our city center during the last 10 years has been supported predominantly by only two of the three legs: live and play.
Downtown has exploded with new condominiums and apartments, and cultural, dining and entertainment options. Weekends downtown are full of activity. The restaurants hum and the active streets are the envy of the other downtowns in the bay area.
Yet the cranes that gave our city a skyline during the last five years for the most part don't reflect a growing employment base downtown: the work leg of the stool.
Weekdays downtown are decidedly quieter than weekends, even during business hours. The honest answer to the question about business would be that the businesses that grew up in downtown St. Petersburg have slowly migrated north to our Gateway district.
During the last 10 years, a number of major employers have moved their offices from downtown St. Petersburg to mid Pinellas County: Franklin Templeton Funds, First Advantage Corp., Accenture, Modern Business Associates and Bankers Insurance. Check out the traffic at evening rush hour on any weekday: The going-home traffic is heading south from the Gateway office parks.
While there have been a few notable exceptions (namely Florida Progress' consolidation downtown and SRI's arrival on the USF campus), downtown is definitely St. Petersburg's heart and soul, yet Gateway is becoming our central business district.
Should we care?
Most of the office parks in Gateway fall within St. Petersburg city limits, and the tax revenues they generate come back to our city's coffers.
If our downtown has come back to life as a vibrant urban residential neighborhood, does it matter that it is shrinking as a center for commerce and employment, or that the majority of its growing residential population is either retired, seasonal, or gets in the car every morning and commutes to jobs in other parts of the greater Tampa Bay area?
There are lots of reasons that we should be concerned.
Here are just a few:
1. Our city has a sizeable low-income population living near downtown in Midtown that suffers from a lack of economic opportunity and relies disproportionately on public transportation that isn't available to Gateway.
2. Many of the amenities that we love about downtown — new restaurants, art galleries and retail shops — struggle on weekdays and weeknights. Several weren't able to survive the slow summer season last year when tourists, seasonal residents and festivals weren't around to give them a boost.
3. The interstate spurs into downtown (Interstate 175 and I-375) are underutilized and represent valuable free road capacity. If we encourage more employment growth in congested mid Pinellas County, we will be forced to allocate scarce public revenue for road widening projects that aren't necessary to accommodate new employment in our downtown.
As the residential and entertainment legs of the live-work-play tripod take a pause from their steroid-fed growth over the last decade, they could use some help from the work leg to make sure the stool is still standing strong in another 10 years.
An economically vibrant downtown district can go a long way toward resolving a myriad of city issues: by helping to reduce crime through enhanced economic opportunity and filling the city's coffers so that government can provide services without increasing taxes.
Now is the right time for St. Petersburg's leaders to create a new vision for our downtown in the next 10 years.
Jay Miller has a degree in urban planning and is vice president of a local commercial real estate development company. He lives in St. Petersburg.