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Bay Plaza walk raises questions

He has been called an obstructionist whose goal is to gut the city's $200-million redevelopment plan.

But Peter Belmont sees himself in a different light: The lawyer for Save Our St. Petersburg sees himself as posing legitimate questions about the public-private venture.

His latest questions about the Bay Plaza redevelopment plan revolve around whether the developer is required to put in a pedestrian walkway along First Avenue N. That would cut through the planned 24-screen movie theater. His concerns were contained in a June 18 letter addressed to City Attorney Michael Davis.

Belmont said SOS wants the city to remember a 1988 letter from Bay Plaza that said several "community sponsored suggestions," including the pedestrian mall, could be integrated into the plan.

And more important to Belmont: Doesn't the city have to hold public hearings on altering the six-block downtown redevelopment plan if Bay Plaza doesn't put in the walkway?

Those questions drew a terse reaction Monday from Bay Plaza president Robert L. Jackson Jr.: "I haven't seen it (Belmont's letter) so I have no comment."

Which leaves Belmont, and others in the city, pondering the larger questions: What's wrong with modifying the plan? Or even talking about changing it?

The answer from City Hall: Stability is paramount for the success of the project.

"I think what you have to understand is that once a developer has the approved plans and contracts, it's very difficult for him to move forward with the project if it continues to change," said Steve Kurcan, the city's development and property management director.

Bay Plaza's plans call for the 24-screen theater complex to be built across First Avenue N between First and Second streets. Belmont's group, however, has suggested flipping the building on its side, so that First Avenue N would not have to be vacated.

But turning the building sideways would cut off the north-south and east-west pedestrian thoroughfares, Kurcan said. "If you turn it sideways, you've gutted the project from the pedestrian standpoint," he said.

"To open it up and continue discussions is very hard on the project," Kurcan said. "That almost makes the project impossible to do. It scares the tenants. It scares the bank. It makes them wonder if the developer has the ability to do what he says he can do."

Jackson said there has been no shortage of opportunity for public commentary on the plan.

"The public has had multiple opportunities to review, cuss and discuss the plan," Jackson said. "If there are any further requirements for public hearings, I'm sure the City Council will hold a public hearing."

Davis, the city attorney, said he was not sure whether a pedestrian mall, along First Avenue N between Beach Drive and Second Street N, was part of the approved plan. If it is, and Bay Plaza wants to leave it out, that will require a change of the plan, Davis said. He said he would look into the matter.

But Kurcan said the 1988 letter refers to a walkway already incorporated into the Bay Plaza plan and won't be interfered with by the plans for the theater. He said the walkway would be built over an existing alley north of the theater site.

Belmont, however, said he's bringing it up now to raise awareness of the previously discussed walkway, which would accommodate people who wanted to walk between the waterfront and the retail district.

"It seems like a commitment that was forgotten," Belmont said.