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Fourth Street sizzles

If the construction blockade has kept you off Fourth Street N lately, you're in for a surprise.

A raft of new fast food faces has cropped up within the past year, many in just the past few months. In fact, the number of restaurants nears 70, give or take, because they're popping up every day, from Central to 112th avenues.

Kenny Rogers, Applebee's, Pollo Tropical, Shells and Crabby Bill's are some of the "new" kids on the block.

Why the rush to Fourth Street?

"The whole Fourth Street corridor is a great residential area," says Chip Roehl, vice president of marketing for Tampa-based Shells Seafood Restaurants. "The apartments and commerce on the street itself (and) the deep residential area that goes back toward the water.

"We picked the site because the area was underserved," he said. "The choice of dining was either to go to downtown St. Pete or cross the bridge to Tampa."

Roehl can see why there are so many seafood restaurants popping up. "Obviously, we live in Florida, and seafood is hot."

Craig Sher, president of Sembler Co., shopping center managers and developers, agreed that the demographics of Fourth Street look good to restaurateurs.

"You have a younger population and higher income," he said. "Restaurants have a habit of targeting those places. I think generally the newer ones are of a fast-food nature. The old classic favorites will survive, but everyone gets hurt a little bit. There are only so many fast food dollars out there."

The Sembler Co. is not involved in any of the Fourth Street development. "There is very little real estate there," Sher said. "In fact, Pinellas County just doesn't have the land for centers anymore. Much of what is being done is re-use of land and that is very expensive, but good for the area."

Mayor David Fischer agrees. He thinks the number of restaurants coming in is an indicator of a good economy. "These restaurants do studies," Fischer says. "It's a pretty good indicator that if they come in numbers, there's good business being done and that bodes well for the economy."

Jerry Sparks, manager of construction service and permitting and also designated building official for the city, said the Fourth Street action "is just reflecting the upturn in the economy."

"Our reports through July show total construction value up almost 25 percent. Actual construction isn't up that much, but people are doing larger projects."

Although this also is true in the Tyrone area, "it's probably more apparent on Fourth Street."

A lot of the "biggies" _ Chili's, Rio Bravo, Grady's _ that you see in other areas will not appear here. Zoning is the reason. Generally a commercial spread along Fourth Street cannot go past the mid-block alley.

City Council member Connie Kone says the zoning rules are in place to preserve the neighborhoods. The alley demarcation "has been something that restrains (developers)," she said.

Other zoning requirements, Kone said, are setbacks, walls and beautification. "What we try to do is to have them account for adequate parking and traffic so they don't spill out into the neighborhood and create noise and traffic problems."

Applebee's is a part of one of the larger chains that was able to make the zoning requirements work for them. The property the chain bought was formerly occupied by the Blue Moon Motel and the Virginian Motel at 4764 and 4700 Fourth St. N, respectively. Because some of the cottages on the motel property were on the west side of the alley and were zoned commercial also, the restaurant was able to go beyond the usual limits.

"I spent two years working the market and trying to find a site," said Franklin Carson of Casual Restaurant Concepts, franchisee for Applebee's. "I found two property owners next door to each other who were willing to sell. We worked with City Council to get the parcel replatted and get a wet zone so we could open our restaurant."

He hopes to open the week before Christmas. He will have a building just under 5,000 square feet on about an acre of property. He will have about $1.5-million in the land, building and equipment.

"The location is just great for us," he says. "In comparison to other casual dining, we are a little smaller. We focus on the area we're in. Fourth Street has a real sense of community and a strong population base. It's an ideal location for us."

A sense of community might be good news for the neighborhoods. But if there is concern about the boom from neighborhoods near the Fourth Street corridor, it has been low-key. "I haven't had anybody mention it," said Jon Clarke, president of CONA, "and I think it's good personally. Fourth Street has had some problems and I think this activity is positive."

Tony Cooper, of Personal Touch Catering on Fourth Street, says he has not heard from neighbors or customers of the shop. "No, nobody around here has said a thing," he said. "And certainly nobody here is complaining."

The restaurant business on Fourth Street N starts slowly in the heart of town _ Blimpie's and J J's Subs and Salads, the Keystone Club, all within a three-block area. The action ambles along _ here Fourth Street Shrimp Store, there China City and across the street the Great Wall, here El Cap and Ringside Cafe, there Sammy's Italian Grill and Harvey's 4th Street Grill.

Then about 36th Avenue, it really begins to heat up.

Stop at the traffic light at 38th Avenue N, and all you can see are fast food signs _ you've just passed Little Caesar's and Subway, and here's a Taco Bell, a McDonald's, a Boston Chicken, a Burger King, an Arby's and a Checkers.

You might be on U.S. 19.

However, these have all been here awhile. But where once was Wags at 39th Avenue N, a Pollo Tropical has sprung up. A Kenny Rogers Roasters adds to the chicken offerings on the east side of the street at 44th Avenue, and at 47th an Applebee's is under way. Crabby Bill's, a locally based chain, has just opened its ninth location at 6445 Fourth St. N, and Shell's, also seafood, will open by December at 7005 Fourth St. N.

At 92nd Avenue, it's deja vu, for here comes a Wendy's, Taco Bell, Subway, Checkers, McDonald's and Boston Chicken. Add to this Beijing Gardens, China Village, the Village Inn and Maria's Cucina, and you have to wonder if anybody eats at home anymore.

This isn't all. The requisite Steak and Ale and Bennigan's are at 99th, and at Paragon Crossing, the last shopping center on Fourth Street N, there's brand new Cafe Athena, serving up Greek food; the Italian Pavilion, which has moved to new and larger quarters within the center; and Gambles Eatery and Pub.

Besides the overkill among the fast food chains, what do the chains do to the old local favorites, like El Cap, Anna's Ravioli & Pasta Co., the Sea Bar, Harvey's, Ringside and the Keystone, each of which has a local flavor and following?

"What makes a community strong and gives it some identity is a mix of independent restaurants," says Dan Harvey, owner and operator of Harvey's 4th Street Grill. "They bring character to a place. If the independents don't have staying power, you're going to go where you get a consistently good restaurant. But fast forward this to the year 2010 and you tell me how many independents will still be here."

_ Staff writer Piper Jones contributed to this report.