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St. Petersburg seeks money to plan MLK, 8th Street two-way conversion

Florida Department of Transportation will study “best course of action” for Interstate 175 in 2025.
 
St. Petersburg Council vice-chair Deborah Figgs-Sanders, left, and U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, look on as St. Petersburg Mayor Ken Welch addresses the audience during a press conference on the corner of 5th Avenue South and 16th Street in Campbell Park on Tuesday, Oct. 31, 2023 in St. Petersburg. Mayor Welch and U.S. Rep. Castor are requesting funding to connect the historic gas plant redevelopment with south St Petersburg via two-way street conversion on MLK and 8th Street and working around Interstate-175.
St. Petersburg Council vice-chair Deborah Figgs-Sanders, left, and U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, look on as St. Petersburg Mayor Ken Welch addresses the audience during a press conference on the corner of 5th Avenue South and 16th Street in Campbell Park on Tuesday, Oct. 31, 2023 in St. Petersburg. Mayor Welch and U.S. Rep. Castor are requesting funding to connect the historic gas plant redevelopment with south St Petersburg via two-way street conversion on MLK and 8th Street and working around Interstate-175. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
Published Oct. 31, 2023|Updated Oct. 31, 2023

ST. PETERSBURG — The city is seeking more than a million in federal dollars to plan for converting two of downtown’s busiest drags — 8th Street and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Street — into two-way streets.

With Interstate 175 as a backdrop, U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Tampa, and St. Petersburg Mayor Ken Welch announced the $1.2 million funding request at a Tuesday news conference at Campbell Park. They said the project would reconnect the neighborhoods south of Tropicana Field that were blocked off from downtown by one-way streets and the 1970s construction of I-175, which Castor called a “colossal mistake.”

“You can see this 175 completely bifurcated the working communities of South St. Pete from downtown, and we want to look for ways to repair those historic mistakes,” she said.

St. Petersburg applied for a slice of the $185 million through the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Communities and Neighborhoods Community Planning Grant Program. The project seeks an 18-month plan to engage residents in the project, improved pedestrian and bike facilities, curb extensions and street trees. They also plan to evaluate how the two-way conversion and lane reallocation would impact communities.

Evan Mory, the city’s director of parking and transportation management, said the city applied a month ago. He said the city expects to hear back by early next year whether it won the grant.

Mory said physical street changes would come in another phase that would tee up the city to receive federal construction dollars for the project.

“Seeing changes on the ground is a few years off,” he said.

Welch and Castor, along with City Council Vice Chairperson Deborah Figgs-Sanders and Terri Lipsey Scott, executive director of the Woodson African American Museum of Florida, spoke about the “historic mistakes” that came with the construction of I-175. A news release from the city said that the construction of the I-175 spur in the late 1970s forced about 4,000 people to move, displacing 2,700 Black families and businesses.

“Today, our aging highway system stands as a monument to environmental injustice,” Lipsey Scott said, adding that she stood with Castor and the city to push for “restitutions for our fractured communities.”

Though the grant sought by the city does not address the interstate, city leaders said it was part of a larger plan. Officials hope to reconnect the Historic Gas Plant District, the name of the surrounding redevelopment of Tropicana Field that was once home to a Black community, to neighborhoods to the south.

Tampa Bay Rays co-presidents Brian Auld and Matt Silverman attended the news conference but did not speak publicly.

Whit Blanton, the executive director of Forward Pinellas, explained that converting the streets will reduce speeding and create more space for wider bike lanes and wider sidewalks. He said those kinds of features are what businesses look for when they’re choosing to invest in an area “because it helps make it more of a destination than just a pass-through territory.”

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Blanton also announced that he has a commitment next year that the Florida Department of Transportation will devise a plan on I-175 to determine the “best course of action” for improvements.