By almost any standard, St. Petersburg has gotten it right when it comes to its downtown waterfront, starting with city leaders a century ago who had the vision to preserve much of it for the public. The challenge now, as the city embarks on writing a 100-year master plan for its downtown waterfront, is to turn the city's most envied asset into a greater one. That will best be accomplished by focusing on improving the waterfront south of Central Avenue.
Turnout for the plan's kickoff Wednesday night was robust, but it's just the first of 13 opportunities between now and Sept. 19 for the public to provide suggestions as part of the eight-month process. Five of those meetings will be "walking audits" in the evening or on a weekend day, where the public will have the opportunity, over the course of the outings, to cover the entire length of the master plan area — from 30th Avenue N to 22nd Avenue S. Smaller meetings are scheduled with the area's stakeholders — from downtown residents to businesses to groups that stage concerts and other events in the parks. Mayor Rick Kriseman hopes to present a proposal to the City Council by May.
One thing was already clear Wednesday night: Residents love the function of what works so well north of Central Avenue. The linear, mostly passive park system has become the city's outdoor living room, drawing thousands on weekends for relaxation. The biggest improvement, perhaps, would be finding more space elsewhere to do what these parks do so well and ease the strain on them, particularly when it comes to Vinoy Park, which has become the default location for festivals large and small. The Urban Land Institute, hired to provide its perspective in advance of the master plan, and others have called for the city to find a way to relieve the stress on that parcel in particular.
South of Central Avenue is a different story. Starting with Albert Whitted Airport, pedestrians and traffic are blocked from large portions of the waterfront. That makes it harder to reach the growing University of South Florida St. Petersburg campus, the city's municipal port, the Salt Creek district and the striking waterfront Lassing Park. The bifurcation also impedes connections with the medical district just west of the university, hampering the dream of a more robust "Innovation District."
The master plan also should address what's next for two of downtown's most underperforming assets. Might a master plan find some solutions for energizing the city's port? And what next for the parcel where the aging Al Lang Stadium sits largely idle since the loss of spring baseball training? Tampa Bay Rowdies owner Bill Edwards has pushed to reimagine the site with a multiuse stadium his soccer team could use. But potential options shouldn't stop there. Removing Al Lang from the downtown footprint would offer opportunities to realign streets, add more parkland and provide better connections to neighborhoods to the south.
St. Petersburg did a lot right in the past 100 years in protecting its waterfront. The trick now is to make it even better in the next 100 years.