ST. PETERSBURG — Sometime during the night of Jan. 30, the bus shelters that ring Williams Park will disappear, setting the stage for a new era in public transportation in St. Petersburg's downtown.
A new plan will eliminate a decades-old bus hub that city leaders, neighbors and businesses have complained is unsightly, a magnet for loiterers and a shield for crime.
On Thursday, city and Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority officials praised the change that will go into effect Feb. 14 and disperse buses and bus stops in a grid network away from the historic park and through downtown streets.
"This is a positive step forward for PSTA bus riders, but this is also an important step for having … Williams Park be a healthier park, a cleaner park and a safer park," City Council member Darden Rice said before the plan was presented to the council.
Mayor Rick Kriseman described it as "transformational," while PSTA CEO Brad Miller called Thursday a historic day.
But Dana Lundmark, 52, who is disabled and currently homeless, is nervous about the changes coming to Williams Park.
"I don't know where I'll catch the bus. I catch the bus from there and go to the doctors. I get off at Williams Park and get my mail at Daystar," he said, referring to the downtown social services agency that offers mailboxes to people who are homeless.
Miller said the PSTA is holding workshops to spread word of the change and will dispatch employees to the park and on buses to speak with riders.
Williams Park has been a bus hub since 1952 and is home to 16 routes. Riders have had to travel to the park to transfer to buses that took them elsewhere, including other cities, Miller said.
"It was a rest stop on their way to someplace else. Times have certainly changed in the last 50 years. Downtown St. Petersburg is the destination now for our transit riders and pretty much everyone," he said.
Beginning on Valentine's Day, buses will drive into downtown and fan out to different streets, expanding the transportation system, Miller said. The grid will run between Fifth Avenue N and Third Avenue S, east to First Street and west to Fifth Street.
G.W. Rolle of the Pinellas County Homeless Leadership Board is concerned about what this will mean to homeless people who gather in Williams Park.
"Progress is good and modernization of the bus system and the transportation system as a whole is good, but when I hear about Williams Park and the benefits that are going to suddenly come to Williams Park after Feb. 14, I hear that the homeless will be dispersed, and I hear that the vagrants, the idlers will disappear during the daylight hours," he said.
"What it does is it removes a common center for people, for the homeless, where they get food, where they get services, where they get police attention, where they get information, where people can come and try to get these people off the street."
From its once world-famous bandstand, Presidents Ronald Reagan, Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford addressed thousands. People packed the benches of Williams Park to hear the Sunshine City Band. Families picnicked on the grass of its 4.3 acres. But in recent years, it has been overrun by the homeless.
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Rice, who has been nominated to be the new chair of the PSTA board, sought to reassure homeless advocates like Rolle.
"Because these buses ring the perimeter of our park, it's created an environmental situation there, and it just hasn't been safe for riders or for the homeless population at Williams Park," she said.
"So, aside from providing much better transit service to our bus riders, this is about making the park safe for everyone."
Times archives was used in this report. Contact Waveney Ann Moore at email@example.com or (727) 892-2283. Follow @wmooretimes.