ST. PETERSBURG — The city’s miles of downtown waterfront parks are about to be augmented with a 26-acre, $92 million Pier District.
But landscape architect Phil Graham Jr. is most pleased with the rows of red and white begonias and yellow shrub daisies beginning to take root at two focal points along St. Petersburg’s cherished downtown waterfront.
“The idea behind this was to get a large enough area that had some visual interest and some impact,” said Graham, president of the Waterfront Parks Foundation, the organization of prominent residents responsible for the recent plantings.
The foundation was created in 2013, after budget cuts caused by the Great Recession left little for showy extras in the parks that owe their origin to residents such as St. Petersburg Times editor William Straub and developer C. Perry Snell. Their dogged efforts to protect the waterfront from encroaching commercial development led to the dedication of the first park in 1910.
Today, the downtown parks that stretch north from Coffee Pot Boulevard to Poynter Park in the south have the distinction of being the third largest waterfront park system in North America, behind only Chicago and Vancouver, British Columbia, leisure services administrator Mike Jefferis said.
Graham, a descendant of a pioneer St. Petersburg family and landscape architect for the Salvador Dali Museum, drafted a group of like-minded citizens, including former mayors Robert Ulrich and David Fischer, to revive the parks once accentuated with ever-changing, blooming annuals.
“The parks were really getting rundown, because they were being used heavily, and they didn’t have time to recover between events,” he said, "and there wasn’t even the budget for special enhancements.”
Jefferis acknowledged the group’s efforts during the post-recession years.
“At that point, they were really helping us to raise additional funds so that we had proper maintenance along the waterfront," he said. “Things sort of evolved, and the foundation became less about funding and more about advocacy for park lands.”
The foundation, whose mission is “preserve, protect and promote” the parks, has other projects on its agenda, such as adding benches and swings to the scenic landscape.
"We’ve removed some utilities. There was one right on Beach Drive that had a chain link fence around it,” Graham said of the Teco Gas structure. “We are looking at the zoning at the parks right now. We are dealing with lighting. We are dealing with signage.”
Most visible for now are the new flowering plants. Dr. Kamal Majeed, founder of Nextech Systems, a Tampa health care information technology company and a donor to the Janet Echelman aerial sculpture that will rise above the Pier, is covering the cost of the floral project. The Majeed Foundation provided funding to plant flowers at Beach Drive and Fourth Avenue NE and Coffee Pot Boulevard and North Shore Drive NE.
“We love our community, and especially in a time like this, it’s important to give back," he said. "Flowers are a simple and beautiful part of nature, and they bring joy and warmth to the heart.”
The foundation is committed to two or three plantings a year “for the next so many years,” said Majeed, adding that he and his wife, Najla, have committed more than $1 million to community-related projects, which include other nature projects and assisting the needy during the current public health crisis.
Jefferis said the city has continued to maintain the waterfront and plants annuals in each of St. Petersburg’s 150 parks, primarily around marque signs. They are changed twice a year. Annuals must be replaced frequently, which makes them relatively expensive, Jefferis said, adding that the foundation has helped to “amplify” the waterfront parks budget.
The latest project is a collaborative effort between the Parks and Recreation Department and the foundation. The group bought the plants and hired Perry’s Nursery in St. Petersburg to do the planting, while the city adjusted the irrigation system for the new plants and will maintain the beds. The new plantings include 828 shrub daisies, 3,170 scarlet begonias and 1,310 white begonias.
“We have this incredible green necklace of a park system,” Graham said. "I like to say it is like adding jewels to the necklace.”