ST. PETERSBURG — As the city celebrates a proliferation of new and planned condos, museums and a lauded art scene, pleased officials have also had to deal with challenges that come with population growth and development.
Mayor Rick Kriseman on Thursday shared some of his strategies for tackling problems such as affordable housing, the city’s once neglected sewer system, resiliency in the face of daunting climate change forecasts, transportation and keeping Central Avenue’s cool vibe of unique small businesses, even as rents and development rise on and around the popular downtown corridor. He also spoke about the city’s hopes for Tropicana Field.
Kriseman’s observations came during an hourlong “fireside chat” with Jason Mathis, CEO of the St. Petersburg Downtown Partnership. The program was organized by ULI (Urban Land Institute) Tampa Bay.
But before launching into the easy-going question-and-answer session, Kriseman’s gave a shout out to the Tampa Bay Rays on their wild-card victory the previous night.
“First off," he said, "Go Rays!”
The mayor got a chance to speak first about one of his signature projects, the latest iteration of the city’s Pier. The project that will carry on the more than century-old tradition on the city’s downtown waterfront had been languishing and mired in controversy when he took office in 2014.
“My job is to move things forward and get things done. The Pier, to me, was one of those projects,” he told the crowd that filled the grand ballroom at the Birchwood on Beach Drive NE.
No date has been set, but the city, which has been without a Pier since 2013, expects to open the new destination in March or April next year, the mayor said, going on to tout highlights of the project. Among the mentions were world-renowned artist Janet Echleman’s billowing net sculpture — “the largest she has ever done” — a $1 million playground and 500 newly planted trees.
The 26-acre Pier District, which including ancillary projects is expected to cost about $92 million, will have no resemblance to the piers of old, with their historically “long road that went out to a structure over the water,” the mayor said. And, as in the case of the most recent, the inverted pyramid Pier, visitors will not encounter “tchotchke stores.”
“We wanted to transform the whole thing,” he said.
The Pier is one challenge that’s almost conquered, but Kriseman faced questions about the city’s vision for Tropicana Field. There’s one, with or without the Rays, he said. “This is a one-in-a-lifetime, generational opportunity” for St. Petersburg, he said of the 85 acres the city owns and pointed to the site’s proximity “to the heart of downtown.”
Kriseman said he hopes the Rays will realize that the site is best for a new stadium, but either way, the city sees it as a place to build much-needed Class A office space, as well as space for startups, a hotel and conference facility. There are also plans for housing “across the spectrum” of affordability, university and research space, small businesses, green space, restaurants and galleries. “It’s really going to be transformative for St. Petersburg,” he said.
Mathis, who moved to the city about a year ago, followed up by asking the mayor how he plans “to honor the legacy” of the Tropicana site and fulfill promises made years ago connected to the site from which African-American residents were displaced to build the baseball stadium. His administration wants to deliver on the those broken promises, including jobs, career development and housing, Kriseman said.
That led him to address what he prefers to call “housing that is affordable,” "nimbyism” and the assumption that affordable housing means crime, drugs and Section 8 housing. He went on to talk about his 10-year comprehensive plan to meet affordable housing needs, which includes leveraging city-owned property to help lower costs.
Kriseman said he’s been told that he needs to make downtown housing more affordable. He said there’s actually “a lot" in the downtown area. Still, he noted, “Downtowns that are thriving typically are the most expensive places to live.”
Speaking of the city’s plans for development as it deals with climate change, he said St. Petersburg will "do it in a way that is resilient and sustainable.” The Pier, for instance, is being built higher than federal rules require.
About Central Avenue, sometime in the next two years, he’d like to test closing off a large section one weekend to make it completely walkable.
He didn’t escape speaking about the city’s sewer problems, which he blamed on decades of neglect before his tenure.
“For me, it would have been easy to kick the can down the road,” Kriseman said, mentioning the more than $300 million being spent to repair and upgrade the city’s system. “We’re addressing this issue.”