ST. PETERSBURG — Debbie Sayegh recalls the quiet stretch of Central Avenue where she and her husband, George, opened their restaurant Bodega 10 years ago.
“It was like a ghost town with tumbleweeds rolling down the street,” Sayegh said. “(My husband) was pressing the sandwiches, and I was taking the orders in the windows. We said, ‘If by 1 o’clock no one comes down the street, we’re going to close early’.”
The couple had recently moved from Brooklyn when they opened their Latin street food-inspired shop near the corner of Central Avenue and 11th Street South in 2013. Having previously operated restaurants in New York, they saw an opportunity in St. Petersburg, a sunny city with plenty of untapped real estate. The area felt destined for bigger things.
At the time, it was a gamble: Bodega was among the first of several new businesses to open on the street, with little to no foot traffic. But soon enough, things started to change. Shortly after Bodega opened, construction started on Green Bench Brewing Co., over on Baum Avenue North. In 2016, Hawkers Asian Street Food opened on Central Avenue. Intermezzo and Bavaro’s followed, further down the block.
“Little by little, you saw it happening,” Sayegh said.
Now, the bustling corridor in St. Petersburg’s EDGE District hardly resembles those days. Restaurants and shops cram both sides of Central Avenue, and finding a parking spot can feel impossible, even in the middle of a weekday. There’s also a new, and omnipresent, development: the constant hum of construction crews jackhammering, drilling and honking, as the area preps for more expansion.
It’s not just the EDGE District. Lately, all of downtown St. Petersburg can feel like an active construction zone, in particular the portion of Central Avenue stretching from First Street to 13th Street. Dumpsters take up pedestrian walkways and parking spots. Heavy scaffolding sidles outdoor patios. Some streets have lost entire blocks of sidewalk, obliterating any chance of foot traffic.
Meanwhile, businesses remain open, though many say they’re feeling the brunt of the activity — the constant noise, the heavy vibrations from drilling, the absence of parking for their employees. And amid the city’s rapid growth, there are concerns that some of the independent business owners and downtown pioneers that made St. Pete the place it is today might get left behind.
Sayegh is one of several St. Petersburg business owners whose downtown operations have been affected by the ongoing construction (she and her husband also own Baba and Barbouni in St. Pete’s Grand Central District). Bodega, and its speak-easy-style cocktail hub, Bar Chica, sit directly in the shadow of what will become the new Moxy Hotel, a 163-room Marriott property slated to open in early 2024. The hotel is part of the mixed-use development The Edge Collective, a joint venture between Miami-based PTM Partners and Dovehill Capital Management.
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Construction barriers directly abut Bodega’s outdoor sidewalk seating and the narrow walkway leading to Bar Chica’s entrance. It’s become an eyesore and deterrent to potential customers, Sayegh said, who might choose to dine elsewhere when faced with the current obstacles.
“It hasn’t been great,” Sayegh said. “But we’re lucky enough that we can look at the big picture: One day there will be a hotel there and all these people. You look at the long run and you think, ‘this will be good in the end.’ And you try to hang on between now and then — maybe not everyone can.”
Not everyone has.
Last year, Dr. BBQ owners Roger and Suzanne Perry sold the 7,935-square-foot building that housed both Dr. BBQ and the rooftop tiki bar Burnt Ends to PTM Partners for $4.5 million. Perry said the rapid change to downtown St. Petersburg’s landscape played into their decision. More specifically, she said the lack of parking spaces had become a problem.
Further east, on the 200 block of Central Avenue, construction on the 42-story Art House condominium building is underway. Art House developer Kolter Urban broke ground on the luxury building in January 2022 and construction is expected to wrap up in 2024, when it will feature two- and three-bedroom units starting at $1 million.
Neighboring restaurants have certainly felt the effects of the construction, which at one point cut off sidewalk access for a portion of the block. That includes The Mill restaurant, which closed earlier this year, capping an eight-year run.
The Mill’s restaurant space is now vacant. And with the Art House construction underway at least till next year, it’s hard to imagine a tenant coming in anytime soon, said Jordan Johnson, who owns the restaurant next door, Naked Farmer.
Johnson said his restaurant has lost a significant amount of business over the past year, mostly due to a lack of foot traffic and parking spaces.
“It’s just massively inconvenient,” Johnson said. “It’s massively inconvenient for us as operators, for delivery drivers who are trying to find us and park their car for five minutes, for our customers who have to walk on the street.”
Johnson said Naked Farmer has received one-star online reviews from customers who complain that their food delivery is delayed when drivers can’t find a parking spot.
“It’s not like the world is ending for us and the restaurant is going to have to close down, it’s just a big pain in the butt,” he said.
Despite a few closures in the area, most business owners, like Johnson, feel confident about sticking it out. But that doesn’t mean it’s easy.
Over on the 400 block of Central Avenue, restaurants like Il Ritorno, La V, 1809 Original Flavor and Beans & Barlour have all experienced setbacks caused by heavy construction across the street, where crews have been working on what will become the tallest residential building in St. Petersburg. The Residences at 400 Central, a 46-story luxury condominium building from the Red Apple Real Estate Group, spans an entire city block and is expected to be completed by late 2024 or early 2025.
One of the most challenging effects of the construction has been the drilling, which for several months could be felt over at Il Ritorno, where wine glasses would vibrate and shake on the tables, and at Original 1809, where the restaurant’s entire bar would tremble, sometimes forcing customers to relocate until the crews had finished for the day.
Beans & Barlour owner Story Stuart recalled the days when the drilling was at its heaviest, likening the effects to the infamous cannon-fire scene in “Mary Poppins.”
“We’re grabbing everything, and everything starts rattling,” Stuart said. “I joked that I should just start a TikTok account of how to make lattes during an earthquake.”
Stuart’s business, a bagel-and-sandwich spot that also sells boozy ice cream shakes and coffee, is located inside downtown St. Petersburg’s historic Snell Arcade. Though Stuart said the shaking and sound of jack-hammering across the street haven’t been great for her morning coffee and breakfast business, she said the loss of parking spaces has been the hardest adjustment. The construction underway has led to the loss of several spaces along Central Avenue.
“Literally, the following month, our sales decreased by over 30%,” Stuart said. In the months since, she has had to change her business model and hours. Stuart said the lack of parking has been difficult for her staff, many of whom have early morning shifts and often have to park several blocks away.
“As a female business owner who primarily employs women, it’s something to take into consideration,” she said.
“Even if they build a new parking garage (across the street), what’s happening now in the years leading up to that is that there’s nowhere to go. I think a lot of the small businesses think, ‘We’re going to hold out’. But downtown St. Pete will continue to lose its small-business charm. The whole fabric of St. Pete will change.”
A new downtown
Despite the current setbacks, most business owners interviewed for this story said they were in favor of the area’s development and hopeful that future projects would bring more customers to the area.
But that optimism came with a twinge of apprehension from restaurateurs curious about how the area’s growth might shape its future. The underlying assumption is that business begets more business, but at what cost in the interim?
Chris Steinocher, president and CEO of the St. Pete Chamber of Commerce, said he wasn’t surprised by the number of complaints.
“What you’re hearing is, I think, the growing pains of a community,” Steinocher said. “I sense the frustration. But I also sense that excitement of what that really means: This is a city that literally is just trying to absorb as much as it can.”
Steinocher advocated for better communication between the city of St. Petersburg, developers and business owners to help facilitate a smoother transition.
“If there’s a business that’s losing out because people can’t get to it, that’s not a good day.”
Many restaurant owners said that weathering the current hardships will be worth it if the end result brings more business to the area. But how long will they have to stick it out?
“It’s tricky to be in the middle of all the progress because it’s our livelihood,” said Hope Montgomery, who, together with her husband, Jason Ruhe, runs the popular restaurant Brick & Mortar.
“There’s part of us that’s elated that we’re a part of the growth of this city — but it’s also a double-edged sword.”
The building that houses Brick & Mortar sits next to an active construction site for what will eventually become Central Park St. Pete, a five-story food hall with a basement speak-easy, multiple restaurant concepts and a rooftop lounge. Vertical construction on the hall broke ground this past November and, while developers initially planned for a late 2023 launch, supply chain issues and permitting setbacks will likely push the opening into 2024, said the hall’s owner, Natalia Levy.
For Montgomery and her team, the construction has meant a loss of parking spaces, foot traffic and sidewalk seating. But despite those headaches, the restaurant has achieved enough acclaim over its eight-year run that a steady stream of regulars has assured its survival. It’s what comes next that has Montgomery more concerned.
“As a smaller-business owner I just hope that we can sustain all the changes and growth that the city goes through,” Montgomery said. “I think a lot of the mom-and-pop businesses are really the core fabric for what makes this such an interesting city.”
Like Tampa Bay’s booming housing market, commercial real estate in the area has skyrocketed, and prices in downtown St. Petersburg are climbing. According to a 2022 market report from real estate firm Colliers, rental rates for retail space in the Tampa Bay area increased 4.7% over last year and 14.4% over five years.
“I’m really hopeful and I like to be optimistic but I do think that the prices of rent are becoming so expensive that they are going to price out smaller businesses,” Montgomery said. “I do wonder if too much progress is really progress after all, especially when it happens so fast.”
Back at Bodega, Sayegh echoed the sentiment.
“It’s bittersweet — that’s really the only way you can describe what’s happening,” she said. “On one (hand) you’re saying how great it is, but at the end of the day it doesn’t have that little grungy feel it used to have. You look around and it’s not the same old St. Pete.”