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City, Bay Plaza marriage is ready for divorce court

Watching and listening to the behavior of many St. Petersburg City Council members at recent meetings, I see a frightening parallel to the behavior of a friend of mine with an alcoholic spouse. This friend has had professional mental health counselors classify her behavior as co-dependent. She defends and insists on hanging onto her partner at any cost. She is caught up in denial. Lots of it. There is the inability to just admit the relationship hasn't worked, even if she has been working at it a long time. My friend's mental health counselor tells her to work toward new, healthy relationships. In fact, she has been told no relationship is better than a bad one. All of this is valid advice for City Council members, I'd say.

There are so many healthy reasons to dissolve the relationship with Bay Plaza. First of all, grand-scheme master planning is a thing of the past. The grandiose plan has always had a fanciful premise: 1-million square feet of shopping and entertainment to transform St. Petersburg into an exciting urban mecca! This lofty fantasy came packaged for City Council in its co-dependent, yearning state of mind from the now shaky Nichols Co.'s former president, Lynn McCarthy, and city staffers. It has never been realistic to think a magic developer can wave a wand and cure a community's ills. Case study after case study of communities around the United States proves that what makes an urban central business district desirable and unique and creates interest are local entrepreneurs and business people with a vested interest, concern and knowledge of the area. Many overly ambitious mall developments of the middle and late '80s are having a difficult time justifying their existence. The "formula mall" concept would never allow our city to be differentiated from a hundred other cities with the same plan. If you've been in one, you've been in them all.

Have many council members lost sight of the actual issue they are voting on, which was an extension of the contract? I would say so. Since its inception, the contract has never allowed the city of St. Petersburg to be in a position of power. The residents of St. Petersburg were not given the opportunity for proper input to an agreement they have had to stomach for the last eight years. The Bay Plaza contract is filled with vague language and ambiguities such as "best efforts" and many other phrases. The contract allows streets to be given away. From a planning standpoint this type of action would require meticulous consideration if it were being done for any other developer. At this point, the contract is obsolete and would not be written for any developer, much less Bay Plaza! The contract is the primary issue here.

At this point, if Bay Plaza is truly as confident and healthy a developer as it claims, it can have the opportunity to perform nearly all of the development it says it can if the contract is rejected. Since it holds several properties, Bay Plaza can be like any other landowner in the downtown corridor and go through all the motions and approval processes that you and I would as property owners. This is not an unfair or unreasonable request of a development firm that has invested some money throughout the city. This would hoist Bay Plaza into the competitive marketplace and serve to motivate the company to develop properties in a timely fashion.

We as a city, not Bay Plaza, are the masters of our own destiny. To reinforce this thinking, just go downtown and take a look around. The city has taken a new energy and direction in spite of this grand scheme. It's not just one new thing, but many new and old factors that work together to produce a vibrant downtown corridor. The arts community, the Florida International Museum, historic building revitalization, restaurants and retail businesses, a magnificent waterfront, many well-planned events and some economic development incentives have contributed to this rebirth.

The woes of this contract and development are not all Bay Plaza's fault. It is the city's responsibility to regulate land use, zoning and all development. Council members should come to grips with the current situation and take responsibility for their behavior and non-successful business partnerships rather than leave it all in someone else's hands.

So, City Council members, I have some suggestions for healthy relationships with developers. Do some research on urban planning throughout the United States and take note of trends and communities that are inviting and socially friendly. Also, it's a great time to read Co-dependent No More. You'll feel better for it. And most important, say no to extending the Bay Plaza contract.

Jennifer O'Brien is chairman (July 1, 1995) of the city's Planning Commission/Historic Preservation Commission. Professionally, she works as a creative director for an advertising agency.

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