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The pedestrian quest

Living downtown without a car is a lot easier than it used to be.

Three years ago, a Neighborhood Times reporter took a fantasy day trip to find out what was possible to buy downtown. She had to dream quite a bit.

Unable to find food for her Welsh corgi, she substituted delicatessen chicken livers for dog food. For toilet paper, she had to spend $16.95 for two rolls that were monogrammed from a stationer's shop.

Things have changed. That fantasy is much closer to reality now.

The opening of University Village with its Publix grocery store and a nearby Eckerd drugstore just a few months ago offers many basics a downtown resident needs. For entertainment, BayWalk provides 20 movie screens and a number of shops and restaurants. Trendy spots such as Starbucks have opened in the Mid Core Garage. Tranquility Day Spa is there also.

To test the liveability of downtown, I spent a day last week as a resident without a car, creating a world that went just a little beyond Williams Park to the west and the waterfront to the east. North and south boundaries were the Third avenues, N and S. I chose a condominium in the Snell Arcade (1) as my residence.

The 1928 castlelike building that once housed offices and retailers is being converted into 11 condominiums. Shops on the street level are for sale as commercial condominiums. Residents already are in some of the units that have a sleek, European look.

My first foray from my condominium at 405 Central Ave. is for groceries. If I were driving, I'd get a week's worth but since that would be too much to carry, I look for the daily essentials, including a stack of paper for my computer printer.

The day is a perfect Florida one, sunny but cool enough for a coat, a good walking day. I cross a section of sidewalk where the word FREAK has been etched, and I pause by the bright, new bougainvillea around the Eckerd sign.

It takes just 10 minutes to walk east and south to University Village (2), at Third Street S and Third Avenue. Open only a few months, this shopping center offers a grocery, video store, optician, nutrition store, hair salon, wine shop and Chinese restaurant. Set to open there are another restaurant and a dry cleaner. Eckerd is a block west.

Publix has all the basics, including dog food and toilet paper. It has some small shop specialties: freshly baked bread, fresh flowers and decent wine.

While I am in the grocery, I check out what is available in kitchen equipment. I can buy plastic dinner ware: $2.19 for a wine goblet, $1.33 for a 20-ounce tumbler, 43 cents for a 9-inch plate and $1.05 for a cereal/salad bowl. These would do in an emergency if the moving van were delayed. Elsewhere in the store is Anchor glassware and also some pottery dinnerware, but no dinner plates were left.

Publix has other things that will do in a pinch, such as walking socks, $3.79 for two pairs of the low cut ones. L'eggs stockings for $2.49 are there, too. I don't see any printer paper.

In another 10 minutes, I am back at my condo in Snell arcade, depositing my groceries. I return to Central Avenue. It is mid morning, and I decide to get a snack: fuel for walking. I stop in the Central City Bean (3), one of the commercial spaces in the arcade, and buy two pieces of banana bread for $1.34. They are wrapped in plastic and put in a small paper bag with a napkin. Makes them easier to eat while walking.

Throughout downtown are numerous restaurants and snack shops. Central City Bean is one of the newer ones. I like buying from smaller shops; I try to avoid malls.

I decide to see what furniture is available. I need a small dining table with two chairs if I am going to make the most out of the space in the condo. West on Central is Dwelling Furniture (4) at 465. It is relatively new also. It has lots to choose from, but I don't see a small table. Remembering the computer paper, I head east on Central, turning down a man who asks for money in front of McCrory's, the old five and dime now under renovation.

Turning north on Second Street, I stop in at Megabyte Computers, which sells and repairs computers. No paper for sale here. I should try BayWalk Pharmacy (6), one of the technicians suggests.

The pharmacy has been open about a year and a half and is among the shops at the street level of the Mid Core Garage, which serves the BayWalk entertainment center. Also there are a coffee shop, restaurant, ice cream shop, spa, real estate office, card shop, marine store and MRI practice. A pharmacy clerk says no on printer paper and directs me south to the UPS Store (7). I'm backtracking now since that store is on the edge of University Village, but I head there anyway.

The lone clerk at the UPS Store is tied up, and it looks like he will be a while so I decide to move on to Eckerd (8), which I skipped earlier. There I find a small selection of printer paper. HP everyday inkjet, 500 sheets of letter size paper for $8.19. I am surprised.

Eckerd also has food items and a better selection of books than the grocery. Mixed in with the mysteries and gothic romance are some Judy Blume titles and even a copy of Peter Pan. Still it is not a bookstore.

When I complain about the lack of a bookstore downtown, a colleague suggested Haslam's is not that far a walk. I disagree; it is 20 blocks out on Central.

BayWalk (9) is my next stop. I head there on First Street. The walk takes 10 to 15 minutes. I am not in a hurry.

BayWalk initially planned to have a bookstore but those plans fell through. Being is a BayWalk tenant and offers all sorts of home decor items and quirky gifts. In some ways it makes up for the closing of the Straw Goat, a quirky store with Swedish glass, gourmet kitchenware and unusual gift items that used to be on Beach Drive. The Straw Goat closed several years ago.

I look over Being's furniture but don't find that small dining table. I check out some dishes, though, having second thoughts on the plastic. I can buy the Versace Jungle pattern for $345 for a five-piece place setting. A Vario white pattern has its dinner plates priced at $17, salad plates at $11 and bread and butter places, $8.

Ben & Jerry's is one of BayWalk's big draws. I consider it for an afternoon snack but the line there is five deep with only one clerk.

Out in the courtyard I witness a disquieting scene. A thin, sort of scraggly woman picks up the longest of the stubbed out cigarettes in an ashtray, lights it up and goes on her way.

In Hurricane Pass Outfitters at BayWalk, I see what the men's clothing section offers. Indigo Palm jeans are $78 and a short-sleeve silk shirt, $120. As I walk out the door, which is propped open to the cool air, the cashier is singing along with the radio where Jimmy Buffett does a live version of A Pirate Looks at Forty.

It is midafternoon. I wish for something like a department store or even a mini Target. I don't want to pay hundreds of dollars for the sheets I saw earlier at a specialty store on Beach Drive. I'd like more of a selection in printer paper. What do I do the next time I need an ink cartridge? Jeans cheaper than $78 seem like a good idea, too.

Now the lack of a car is a problem. Downtown has most of the basics but not all. I walk toward Williams Park (10). At quarter past the hour, the No. 18 bus pulls out for Tyrone Square Mall.

On the Web

To read Lennie Bennett's account of downtown living from the Jan. 10, 2001, Neighborhood Times go to www.sptimes.com, then in the archives search field _ near the upper right hand corner _ type the word "transmogrification" (really). It will bring up a few stories. Hers is headlined "Downtown living: shop 'n' stroll."

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