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St. Petersburg's Beach Drive restaurants may get competition from pier establishments

ST. PETERSBURG — There is consternation in some quarters about the city's plans to establish three restaurants in the new Pier District expected to open two years from now.

With a total of about 725 seats, the proposed restaurants could mean competition for businesses now thriving on popular Beach Drive and other spots downtown. There is also worry about the loss of green space along the city's prized waterfront.

Bill Edwards, owner of the Sundial shopping plaza, Rowdies soccer team and Rowdies Den sports bar, said that many extra restaurant seats would be "devastating to everyone that's trying to make it" in downtown.

"I think it's going to be bad for the city and bad for the businesses," he said.

Construction of the $66 million Pier District is expected to begin next year, with the city leasing restaurant space. One restaurant is being planned for the end of the pier, which will stretch 1,265 feet into Tampa Bay. Another will be built in the Pelican parking lot, while a third will be near the St. Petersburg Museum of History.

"At some point, there is a saturation point of food establishments," said Chuck Prather, whose Birchwood hotel on Beach Drive is the site of two restaurants, the Canopy Rooftop Lounge and Birch & Vine.

"And for the rest of us to compete in the free market against our city government is very difficult for us. The city hasn't discussed what the asking rental rate will be, but it certainly appears that they are going to offer it below the market," he said.

Steve Westphal, owner of Parkshore Grill and 400 Beach Seafood and Tap House, also is upset.

"I feel that the city is going more into the restaurant business than operating the green space for the activities that the community requested," said Westphal, who also owns the Hangar Restaurant and Flight Lounge at Albert Whitted Airport and Café Gala in the Dalí Museum.

"I don't want to see the city get back into a subsidized program, especially on the pier head. I feel that they should operate one successful restaurant," he said.

The taxpayer subsidy for the old pier exceeded $1.4 million annually during its final decade, the city has said.

Bob Churuti was on the Pier Advisory Task Force that issued a report in 2010 about what should be done with the landmark. He is co-director with his brother-in-law John Hamilton Jr. of more than 60,000 square feet of family-owned Beach Drive retail property, which leases to several restaurants.

"I was told that they wouldn't do anything that would damage Beach Drive. In my opinion, these would," he said of the proposed restaurants.

"I think the end of the pier needs a restaurant out there ... and maybe one on the uplands, like a Shake Shack, something that everybody can afford."

The Pier District, a melding of the pier and the pier approach — the latter running from the Vinoy Renaissance Resort to Pioneer Park and encompassing Beach Drive to Spa Beach — takes its cues from the city's new Downtown Waterfront Master Plan.

But Ross Preville, chair of the Downtown Waterfront Master Plan Task Force, said the plan that the City Council approved last year is simply a guide, and not everything needs to be done at once.

"It doesn't mean you have to have three restaurants right away," he said. "It is meant to be a 50-year document that gets applied a little at a time."

Preville, St. Petersburg Area Chamber of Commerce president and CEO Chris Steinocher and Chris Ballestra, the city's managing director of development coordination, have met with the Beach Drive business owners.

"We told them that we are exactly in the phase where we should be having discussions about the programming out at the pier, and I told them that nothing they've seen so far is set in stone and that all of it is subject to change, based on the will of the public," Preville said.

There was also a meeting with Colliers International, the firm that will operate the Pier District and is preparing a market study about what would be feasible at the site.

"I think we would be getting ahead of ourselves, if we made any decisions prior to getting that report," said Preville, who was a member of Mayor Rick Kriseman's pier working group that determined what residents really want at the pier.

They "overwhelmingly wanted a restaurant, but they wanted one at the uplands," Preville said. "It's a bit of a dilemma, because I think the biggest risk is a restaurant out at the pier head, because there is going to be no parking."

Alan Lucas, who owns the Moon Under Water British pub and restaurant, established on Beach Drive long before it became trendy, is not sure how he feels about the proposed pier restaurants.

Lucas said he's "sort of on the fence" until he knows what cuisine will be offered.

"If the restaurants bring people to the pier, it's a good thing. I haven't seen any studies. I have nothing to go on, other than what's happened in the last three or four years, and the city isn't big enough for the number of restaurants."

Contact Waveney Ann Moore at or (727) 892-2283. Follow @wmooretimes.