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Buses to continue stopping at park

(Ran East, South editions)

Heart-of-downtown Williams Park, a makeover target as offices and luxury living sites go up around it, is bound for eventual change.

Exactly what will take place is not certain.

But officials and other city leaders are looking closest at homeless people who use the park and the buses that stop around its perimeter.

The homeless issue is being addressed by the county's 10-year plan and perhaps further by Mayor Rick Baker's proposal to create a city outreach function, officials say.

As for buses, chatter among riders sometimes says the vehicles are going to be sent elsewhere and Williams Park eliminated as a stop.

Officials say no.

They point out that the park is the most heavily used terminal in Pinellas County.

They cite statistics showing 68 percent of the riders who board buses there have not transferred from a bus coming in from another part of the city, but have walked from somewhere downtown.

Likewise, 56 percent of those getting off are within walking distance of their destination and do not have to transfer to another bus, statistics show.

St. Petersburg College has a downtown. About 1,300 students use it, 35 percent coming from Midtown on a bus, said Don Shea, Downtown Partnership president.

"That's a constituency we want to encourage," Shea said.

Given all that, the upshot is: Buses won't be banned from Williams Park, but the way they come and go may be different.

Joe Kubicki is director of the city's transportation planning department.

He said reducing the amount of time the buses wait at Williams Park is an important consideration.

"We want to still have Williams Park as a destination, but we don't want it surrounded by buses. We don't want the buses staying for periods of time," Kubicki said.

"We want them to stop, pick up whoever's there, and move on. By doing that, we feel there will be much less of an impact on Williams Park."

A group that has met to study the park's future has cited exhaust fumes and buses blocking views of the park from the street as reasons to discourage long stays.

Said Shea: "It's vital to maintain it as a bus stop, not a bus terminal."

A terminal where buses could stop and lay over may be in the works for another downtown site, as yet undetermined.

A $500,000 federal grant will pay for a study to help decide what the best location might be, Kubicki said. A tentative timeline calls for choosing a consulting firm in three months, with results of the study forthcoming in about a year.

A site probably would be "somewhere within the interstate loop," Kubicki said. That would put it roughly between the Fifth Avenues N and S, east of about 19th Street.

"It would involve not only public transit but public facilities. Maybe regional buses, maybe a Looper stop and maybe some opportunities for joint development of air rights," Kubicki said.

"Air rights" refer to the possibility of private development perhaps stacked above a terminal building.

Meanwhile, City Council member John Bryan is kicking around another idea: digging below Williams Park and creating an underground terminal.

Bryan pointed out the original excavation for Maas Brothers across Third Street from Williams Park was deeper than what he envisions for a terminal project.

He said he has backup material and plans to bring up the idea for public discussion.

"I think it has merit and I'm not locked into it, but until somebody shows me something better, I like it," said Bryan, who also serves on the board of the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority.

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