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Conflicting visions

Signs around St. Petersburg urge residents to Save Our City by voting against a waterfront park on the ballot Tuesday, as though a park were the greatest threat since the Bubonic Plague. When a campaign reaches such hyperbolic extremes, as the one advocating for Albert Whitted Airport has done, it is time for cooler heads to prevail.

A majority of city residents may, indeed, reject the park and choose to keep the airport open. In fact, 72 percent of 600 registered voters recently polled by the Times said they intended to vote that way. Yet their reasons for favoring the airport aren't in harmony with plans for the property.

Airport advocates would undoubtedly see a victory as an invitation to advance an aggressive expansion of Albert Whitted. Major projects envisioned by the advocates include a runway extension that would intrude farther into the bay than the Pier and hangar construction next to Bayfront Center and on the waterfront. If that happens, larger aircraft, including jets, could land at the airport, increasing noise and safety concerns at All Children's Hospital and the University of South Florida St. Petersburg, which stand in the flight path.

A busier, more obtrusive airport is not what most supporters had in mind, according to the poll. The largest group (45 percent) said they would vote for the airport because of its important place in the city's history. Albert Whitted understandably evokes nostalgia, but that image from the past is of a small, even quaint airfield that serves local pilots and coexists with its urban neighbors, hardly the airport envisioned by those who control it now.

The other leading reason expressed (by 33 percent) for not closing the airport was that such an outcome would lead to more high-rise condos downtown. Unfortunately, the condo issue was manufactured by the pro-airport campaign to sway those who worry about more construction close to the public waterfront. Imagine the disappointment of those who vote for the airport thinking they are striking a blow against downtown development, only to learn that more towers and buildings could be rising on the airport property and more dredge-and-fill and concrete extended into the bay.

It was such concerns that led Mayor Rick Baker to recommend a No vote on both the airport question (No. 1 on the ballot) and the park question (No. 3). If both the airport and park questions fail, then Albert Whitted would continue to operate as it does now, without being written into the City Charter "forever." Baker, who would like to put a smaller airport on the site, said in a recent column that he favors "a consensus plan for the airport that improves the facility to make it one our city can be proud of, while addressing the legitimate interests of the University of South Florida and All Children's Hospital."

Many residents may agree with the mayor, and if they do, there is another way for them to keep control of the airport in residents' hands. By voting No on question 2, voters would retain the right to approve future Federal Aviation Administration grants, which would be needed to expand the runway into the bay. That way, any plans for Albert Whitted Airport would have to win public approval.

We think a park is a better use of the airport property, adding beauty to the downtown waterfront and opening it to everyone, not just pilots. Our recommendations on each of the ballot questions can be found at the bottom of this page, and we hope that the poll results will not discourage anyone from voting.

But we also understand that many residents still have an attachment to Albert Whitted, even if they are concerned about the airport's cost and expansion plans. Those voters have practical, and responsible, alternatives on the ballot. In particular, we urge voters to protect their right to make the final decision on airport plans by voting No on question 2.