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Time to move forward

Today, after a public hearing ostensibly meant to gather citizen input, the St. Petersburg City Council will decide whether the city should continue its eight-year relationship with Bay Plaza, its would-be master developer. It is likely Bay Plaza will be given yet another green light, but before council members cast their lots they owe it to the public to listen thoughtfully and openly to the voices at the hearing.

Even if they won't do that, council members should at least ask themselves one more time why they should not move ahead, which would mean leaving behind Bay Plaza's politically complicated barrier to development on a major portion of downtown land.

True progress dictates refusing Bay Plaza's latest request to extend its contract. Even if eight years of stalemate and disappointment hadn't already passed, St. Petersburg has no business committing taxpayers to an ill-considered housing venture, Bay Plaza's last-ditch proposal to salvage its relationship with the city. As desirable as additional downtown living space may be, such a plan is too great a departure from the city's original intent, which, as those with long memories can attest, was to make St. Petersburg an attractive retail and entertainment destination.

As they admit the need for a change, Bay Plaza officials have reasserted their commitment to the vision of a vibrant downtown. A quick glimpse around them, though, would bring the realization that vibrancy has been budding in downtown St. Petersburg on its own, without Bay Plaza's help. Major League baseball, major cultural exhibitions, the renovated Vinoy hotel _ all are testaments to the ability of the area's business and civic communities to invigorate downtown.

Council members should not kid themselves into thinking they would be getting tough with Bay Plaza by granting only the first part of its three-part extension request, a sort of six-month grace period to prove itself. Once the first six-month extension is granted, the city would have little choice but to give the new ploy a chance to work. After all, Bay Plaza's previous ploys have been given eight years of grace.

Voting "yes" to give Bay Plaza another chance as St. Petersburg's partner is a vote for doing nothing. Voting "no" would force council members to consider creative alternatives for downtown development, a prospect that clearly is daunting to some.

It shouldn't be. Enforcing the contract deadline would begin a whole new level of discussion, one that could allow Bay Plaza to continue as a developer of downtown St. Petersburg, not its master planner but one of many who might be attracted to the area if only given the chance.

The vote today should be a vote for moving St. Petersburg forward. Unfortunately, it appears that too many council members are looking backward or have closed their eyes altogether.