The city is trapped, and there's no escape.
While areas to the north and south bustle and grow, St. Pete is stuck on the end of a peninsula, construction covering 94 percent of its land, its homes and its residents older than those of its neighbors.
For years, many new arrivals to the Tampa Bay area have been drawn, sometimes steered, to newer, younger north Pinellas County.
"People coming across the Howard Frankland turn right, not left," said David Feaster, chairman of the St. Petersburg Chamber of Commerce.
To the south, developments are springing up along Interstate 75 in Manatee County, with its cheaper land and lower taxes. The population in northern Manatee is expected to double in the next 20 years, and many of those people will come from St. Petersburg.
Add to the demographic pressures two nights of violence _ and the resultingpublicity _ it is fair to wonder why a lot of people remain so optimistic about this town.
That's easy, says Mayor David Fischer. St. Petersburg has its limitations, but what city doesn't?
St. Petersburg, he says, has shaken off the lethargy of the '70s, the uncertainty of the '80s, and is midway through the '90s with a common-sense plan to stabilize its neighborhood tax base and build a safe and attractive downtown.
And given the city's natural beauty and sound economy (the unemployment rate for the St. Petersburg-Tampa-Clearwater area was a minuscule 3.8 percent in August), there's little reason to be glum about the future.
Susan MacManus, a professor of political science at the University of South Florida and an expert on municipal government, says St. Petersburg's problems are commonplace.
Many American cities "have a tough road ahead," she said. "People with means are choosing to live in smaller communities. For the baby boomers, its out to "remotesville.' "
On the other hand, an older population (like St. Petersburg's) tends to be a stable population, she said, and older residents tend to get more involved in government. Also, many cities with St. Petersburg's problems don't share its assets, such as balmy climate and spectacular waterfront.
She added a warning, however.
"Public safety is critical. If people don't feel safe, there will be mass migration. Many people in Florida have the means to move, or they wouldn't be here in the first place."
"We're at a crossroads"
With about 3,000 people per square mile, Pinellas County is by far the most densely populated county in Florida _ triple the next highest county, Broward.
In part because of this density, the county's growth rate has been slower than that of the the rest of the state for the last two decades.
Hemmed in by water and the boundaries of other cities, St. Petersburg itself is "built out." Much of what little land remains is unsuitable for development, said planner Gary Jones. Only the Gateway area has sizeable tracts yet to be developed, and not all that is within the city limits of St. Petersburg.
St. Petersburg's housing stock is older than that of the rest of the county, and the average house is valued somewhat less.
The city's population is older, too, but getting younger.
In 1980 St. Petersburg's median age was 42.1. In 1990 it fell to 38.6, and is expected to drop into the mid-30s over the next decade or so. And the city's 18 and under population will grow significantly, especially among non-whites.
Doug Jamerson, Florida's secretary of labor, grew up in St. Petersburg and remembers a time when the city "enjoyed being a haven for retirees." Now, he said, it's time to acknowledge change.
"We're at a crossroads," he said. "We have to design programs to meet the cultural and social needs of a younger population. They can only drive around the municipal pier so many times before they get bored."
Climbing property values
The Rev. Demetrius Lewis, speaking at a recent forum sponsored by the Community Alliance, echoed an old complaint.
When the news media report a crime, Lewis said, "they write, "This is what happens in South St. Pete.'
" As he spoke, half the audience chimed in to finish the sentence with him, emphasizing "SOUTH ST. PETE."
Residents of St. Petersburg south of Central Avenue have long feared that casual media and police references to "South St. Pete" in crime stories unfairly damaged the reputations of their neighborhoods.
While there is reason for the concern, property values south of Central Avenue, for the most part, seem to have held their ground about as well as those for most of the rest of the city during the '90s.
At the Times request, the county property appraiser's office totaled residential value in each of St. Petersburg's three main sections from 1990 to 1996.
Section 2, which includes the Old Northeast and Snell Isle neighborhoods, easily appreciated the most.
The performance of Section 3, the city's western area, and Section 1, or the part of St. Petersburg south of Central, were much closer.
The western area's appreciation in value outpaces the southern area overall. But that is not the case if the the city's poorest neighborhoods south of Central are not counted with the rest of the city's southern section.
Then, St. Petersburg's far south neighborhoods _ Lakewood, Pinellas Point, Bahama Shores and Maximo Moorings among them _ equal or better the west sections of the city and close the gap on the Northeast.
The one exception to the city's upward trend in valuation is the rectangle from Central Avenue south to 22 Avenue S, and from Fourth Street to 49th Street. Overall, that area has lost value in the 1990s. Even there, however, city officials point to pockets of improvement that have been helped by government aid.
"We should stop beating ourselves up"
River Wilderness is a gated community of large homesites on the Manatee River, a few miles south of the Sunshine Skyway.
The homes there are priced from $180,000 to more than $600,000, and eventually there will be 950 of them, said sales manager Rich Sporl. Of the 320 homes built thus far, between 25 and 30 percent were purchased by people who drive every day to jobs in St. Petersburg.
The story is the same elsewhere in northern Manatee County.
Forty percent of the buyers of homes in the 150-lot Regency development are from St. Petersburg and elsewhere in Pinellas, according to St. Petersburg real estate broker Chuck Bohac.
"From here it's less than a half hour to St. Pete," said Sporl. "That's less time than some of our buyers used to spend driving to St. Pete from their old homes in Pinellas."
Manatee County's attraction is no mystery: Cheaper land, lower taxes and neighborhood schools. And the commute is no big deal.
"I have buyers for big, 100-acre-plus parcels," said Bohac, a lifelong St. Petersburg resident, "and there's no more land here. People have been saying for a decade that Manatee County will become the bedroom community for Pinellas, and now its beginning to happen."
But Bohac says his hometown shouldn't fret too much about Manatee County.
"Growth south of the bridge is a plus. It will help attract employees to our area who want the new-home development. Many people who move here come from the North, and they're used to commuting."
Mayor Fischer isn't worried either.
"We better understand that we are in competition with Manatee County, North Pinellas and Tampa, all of them," he said.
"A few years ago I said I would not want to come here and work through all the asbestos, drainage and parking requirements we had. I said as a businessman I would probably go somewhere else, too. But since then we streamlined our permitting to be more responsive."
But the key to St. Petersburg's future is to be good stewards of the assets the city has, he said. There will be no renaissance if the neighborhoods decline.
For many years, the city languished in transition from a winter residency and retirement community to, well, no one seemed to know.
A "particularly pinched Albanian village," the Tampa Tribune once called the downtown area.
From Fifth Avenue N to Fifth Avenue S, the housing stock aged, crumbled and was abandoned. Drugs and prostitution moved in.
"In years past the neighborhoods were neglected," said Fischer. "Some were holding their own, but the marginal ones were going down."
But any fair look at the city's strengths and weaknesses, the mayor said, will show a city just beginning to take advantage of its considerable strengths.
It's true, he said, that some people would prefer to live in serene silence next to a golf course. But many others, he said, are attracted to the activity and excitement of a more urban lifestyle.
"A host of people will come to enjoy the arts, the festivals, the museums, the activities of downtown," he said. "Our potential was stymied for 15 years; we're just now coming out of that.
"If we make our downtown safe and pleasant to visit, we will not only survive, we will thrive."
_ Times researcher Kitty Bennett and staff writers Waveney Ann Moore and Sue Landry contributed to this report.
St. Petersburg property values hold their own
Residential property values generally have risen throughout the city in the '90s, and seemed to match most other areas of Pinellas County. Here is a breakdown by area of the city and a comparison with other areas of Pinellas.
1. The total value of residential property in this area, located south of Central Avenue, increased 7.54 percent between 1990 and 1996.
2. The total value of residential property in this area, which includes the Old Northeast, Snell Isle and Shore Acres, increased 21.58 percent.
3. The total value of residential property in this area, located north of Central and west of Dr. M.L. King (Ninth) Street N, increased 8.35 percent.
Overall increases in rest of Pinellas
Safety Harbor 12.48%
Tarpon Springs 17.29%
Kenneth City 9.36%
Palm Harbor 12.32%
+ Figures are for residential property excluding new construction, which might tend to inflate the value of existing homes. Values of individual homes or in individual neighborhoods might show a lesser or greater change in value from the overall figures listed here.
By the Numbers
In the next decade, the number of non-whites and people under age 20 is expected to increase in St. Petersburg
Total residents Non-white
1990 240,318 52,504
2000 248,271 60,403
2020 272,629 83,049
Median age Under 20
1990 38.6 53,171
2000 39.3 63,518
2020 40.5 62,067
St. Petersburg Pinellas
Year built, 1961 1972
Average $62,200 $73,500
Sources: City, county records