It took three meetings and too much drama, but the St. Petersburg City Council finally reached the right conclusion by approving the most controversial sidewalk vacation in memory. Thursday's vote removes the biggest remaining obstacle to the revival of BayWalk. Now city officials and the retail complex's owners need to deliver on promises to better integrate it with nearby businesses and sign new tenants to again make it a destination.
In the face of fervent lobbying from all sides, it's not easy for any elected official to change his vote. But council member Herb Polson reached the right conclusion when he dropped his opposition, breaking a tie and supporting the sidewalk vacation along with council members Jamie Bennett, Bill Dudley, Jim Kennedy and Karl Nurse. Polson changed his mind after concluding the vacation met the city's routine requirements and joining Danner in requesting another look at other options such as an overhead walkway. City officials and BayWalk developers also reached out to protest groups, including St. Pete for Peace and the International People's Democratic Uhuru Movement, and pledged to continue those efforts.
The sidewalk vacation strikes a reasonable balance between ensuring customers' access to BayWalk businesses and protecting the free speech rights of protesters, who will be able to gather on the opposite side of Second Avenue N and reach the same audience. Now city officials and BayWalk's primary players — owner CW Capital, leasing agent Ciminelli and Muvico — who argued the sidewalk vacation was essential will have to follow through.
Construction should start within two weeks on the city's plans to make better pedestrian connections between BayWalk, Beach Drive and other areas. BayWalk's owners have pledged $6 million in improvements to the complex, and it would be helpful if they would announce some new tenants soon. And now Muvico, which operates St. Petersburg's only movie complex, should make good on its plans to renovate the theaters.
Taxpayers have more than $20 million invested in the success of BayWalk, which opened in 2000 on land the city had acquired for another downtown redevelopment plan. The complex once attracted more than 3 million visitors a year and helped spark downtown's rebirth. Now the pieces are in place to revive it. The sooner, the better. In this recession, it is particularly important that BayWalk draws customers and new business to downtown St. Petersburg.