St. Petersburg taxpayers have spent at least $20 million over the years to help build and support BayWalk, the entertainment complex that helped trigger downtown's renaissance when it opened in 2000. But BayWalk has fallen on hard times, with empty storefronts and a movie theater whose future is in doubt. Taxpayers have an interest in protecting their investment in the struggling development, and Mayor Rick Baker has developed a reasonable plan to help the complex's new owner revitalize it.
The plan is comprehensive in its approach to enhance security, improve public spaces and create well-marked pedestrian links between BayWalk, Beach Drive and other downtown areas. There will be better lighting in the city-owned parking garage that serves BayWalk, and police officers will be patrolling on horseback. The public cost for the improvements is reasonable at less than $700,000, and the entire package should help BayWalk's new owners recruit tenants and help ensure the complex and the surrounding area remain safe and attractive.
As always, there is a catch. The city's plan includes vacating the public sidewalk in front of BayWalk on Second Avenue N and giving it to BayWalk's new owners so they can control what takes place there. When the complex was a vibrant destination, it drew crowds of teen-agers and regular protesters on the weekends, leaving the area congested and raising concerns about security. Metal barricades were used for a time to create an opening to enter the development. The crowds and protesters are gone now, along with most of the stores and patrons. BayWalk officials say the complex will not attract tenants until they can be assured their customers will be able to get to their stores safely and without interference. And a shuttered BayWalk is in no one's best interest.
This is not a new controversy, and there remain serious issues about free speech and the right to protest. In the past, this editorial page criticized a proposal to close Second Avenue N entirely and another that would have created "no-protest zones'' on the public sidewalk. Beyond preventing interference with moving traffic, the government has no business limiting free speech and people's movements on public streets and sidewalks.
Baker's proposal is more narrowly drawn, and it is not without precedent. Streets and sidewalks have been vacated for other private developments. There still would be an opportunity to protest on public sidewalks on the south side of Second Avenue. On that side, BayWalk would be granted a permit to control a short path between the privately controlled walk that leads from the garage to the street. That annual permit would be in effect primarily on weekends, and the city could revoke it if the situation proved unworkable.
Before the City Council votes next month on vacating the sidewalk and the city makes major improvements, though, the public deserves more from BayWalk's operators than vague assurances. The city needs a commitment from the owner — CW Capital of Rockville, Md. — that it will spend the $6 million or so it has talked about for improvements to the complex. More specifics on new tenants also would be in order. And it is time for Muvico, which operates the separately controlled theaters, to firm up its plans instead of demanding public loans and threatening lawsuits. Its theaters may be the only ones in the city, but they no longer rank with the nicest in the area.