St. Petersburg has a proud legacy of preserving its downtown waterfront, and generations of residents and visitors have enjoyed the parks and gorgeous views that are the envy of other cities. Yet the additional restrictions on city-owned waterfront property that the St. Petersburg Charter Review Commission is considering are redundant at best and shortsighted at worse. There is no pressing need for the commission to place these on the November ballot for city voters.
The proposed measures are more a misguided reaction to the Tampa Bay Rays' aborted waterfront baseball stadium proposal in 2008 than thoughtful public policy. Wisely, the commission so far has rejected an even more draconian ballot measure proposed by stadium opponents that would require voter approval of any public project costing more than $100 million.
But the remaining two proposed provisions — dubbed Amendments KK and LL — are also solutions in search of a problem. With few voter-approved exceptions, the city charter already forbids leasing any waterfront property to a private entity for more than three years in commercial areas or five years in residential areas. Any longer leases must be approved by voters, which reasonably limits what can be built since most situations would require longer-term leases. For example, voters in 2004 agreed to grant the Dalí Museum a 99-year lease on the land cleared after the Bayfront Center arena was demolished.
But those current protections haven't stopped the commission — a nine-member citizen group appointed by the City Council and mayor once a decade — from considering further hurdles to reasonable improvements in the city's core. The commission is considering asking voters to amend the charter to require a voter referendum before building a specific list of facilities on waterfront city land: professional sports facilities, convention centers, museums, theaters, performing arts centers, parking garages and unrelated office buildings or retail space.
In practical terms, voters already have the power to block such projects. For example, city leaders could end up embracing a Pier redevelopment plan that would include buildings on the land between the Pier and Bayshore Drive — a scheme consultants have deemed key to ensuring a new Pier draws more visitors than the outdated inverted pyramid. Yet, any major facility on that land is likely to require long-term leases, triggering a referendum as already required in the charter.
The entire impetus for these proposed amendments — the Rays' failed plan for Al Lang Field — also would have required voter approval under the charter. And the city's foreseeable finances all but assure that any major facility built on city-owned waterfront property will require private partners. Those partners will need a long-term lease to recoup their investment, which voters will have to approve.
Should city officials find a way to publicly finance such a big project on the waterfront that doesn't pass public muster, they also risk political suicide. After all, for more than a century, the greatest protector of the waterfront has been city residents. And they have often agreed to reinvestment, such as authorizing 25-year leases to revitalize Albert Whitted Airport. More restrictions, especially ones that single out specific types of projects, are not necessary and would limit creative alternatives to enhancing the waterfront and the city.
At 6 p.m. Monday, the commission will hold a public hearing at St. Petersburg City Hall to discuss these amendments and others. These particular protections for the waterfront are not necessary, and they should not make the ballot.