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Vision for St. Pete Beach downtown includes one-way streets

ST. PETE BEACH — The growing vision for downtown's future may not include high-rise buildings, but it does have an eclectic mix of broader, shaded and landscaped pedestrian walkways, restaurants with outside dining, and new mixed-use residences and retail shops.

"A vision is not a master plan. It is intended to be an inspiration, optimism for the future — what you want the city to be five, 10, 15 years down the road," Susan Harden, a project manager with the consulting firm Michael Baker Jr. Inc., told the commission Thursday.

After meeting with nearly 100 residents and business owners the previous evening, Harden acknowledged the firm may have "missed the mark" on some things, but overall received positive reactions to many of the group's ideas.

What the city seems to want is a colorful mix of architectural styles that work together to encapsulate an ambiance that is both upscale and relaxed, that says "beach" to visitors and that offers activities and spaces that will welcome both pedestrians and bicyclists.

Apparently essential to the plan is a road redesign, dubbed the couplet, redirecting traffic in a circular, counter-clockwise one-way pattern from 75th Avenue on the north, to Gulf Boulevard on the west, 73rd Avenue on the south and Blind Pass Road on the east.

The couplet not only will actually enhance traffic flow, but also will add more than 100 parking spaces and shorten the distance pedestrians have to walk to cross major intersections, according to consultant Jerry Dabkowski.

Some vision ideas can be started within a few months, while others may take years and will require cooperation of private property owners, Harden said. A final "vision" will be presented to the city in late May.

Harden said public investments in infrastructure often lead to significant economic growth.

In West Palm Beach, Harden said, a $10 million investment in traffic calming, new public spaces with fountains and art led to a downtown boom in new businesses, a tripling of sales tax revenues, major building renovations and property tax values that jumped from $6 a square foot to up to $100 a square foot in just five years.

"Last night might have started more contentious than we would have wanted, but it ended in a good way," said City Manager Mike Bonfield.

One concept will not be included in the final plan — a high-rise hotel or condominium.

"We heard you,'' Harden said. "Higher scale buildings will not fly."

Ideas that did seem to resonate with residents, businesses and the commission included wide, landscaped streets with cutouts for outside dining, an expanded park on the Gulf of Mexico and residential and retail development on the Intracoastal Waterway.

Harden stressed that good urban design promotes exercise by encouraging people to walk or bike and increases the social connection among neighbors.

She suggested the city consider decorative monuments at the entrance to the downtown district to provide visual gateways for visitors, as well as involving the city's art community in designing distinctive benches, bike racks and lighting.

"We have to start somewhere and this gives us a plan," Commissioner Terri Finnerty said.

Bonfield stressed the vision plan will become a living document that can be changed over time.

Mayor Maria Lowe stressed that the plan is not tied to the city's embattled comprehensive plan and contains many items that can be implemented immediately to improve pedestrian and public safety, to support economic growth and to become an incubator for citywide redevelopment.

"When we improve our properties, we improve the tax assessed values and increase our ad valorem taxes,'' Lowe said. "This vision brings value."