ST. PETERSBURG — A long vacant site along the city’s most historic Black commercial corridor took two significant steps toward development Thursday.
After contentious debate, City Council voted to hire a contractor to build homes and commercial space and partner with a community group that will likely run the commercial component. The 2.8-acre property is on historic 22nd Street, south of Sixth Avenue S and north of Interstate 275, at the former Commerce Park site where for more than a decade city leaders hoped to create industrial jobs.
Council first voted to hire the contractor, Tampa-based Horus Construction, to design 28,000 square feet of commercial space that fronts 22nd Street and 24-to-26 townhomes in the rear. Right after, the body voted to partner in the development with the Sankofa Vision Group, which includes some of the city’s most visible African-American leaders.
Mayor Rick Kriseman’s administration billed the project as a way to promote equity. The site sits is at the northern terminus of a stretch of 22nd Street that Kriseman is trying to revitalize, an effort called Deuces Rising. The city will fund the construction of the homes and subsidize their sale to low- and middle-income residents, while also funding the construction of the commercial space, which Sankofa may operate and sublease at affordable rates to locally-grown and minority-owned businesses.
“This is not a venture designed to make money, this is a venture designed to create collective empowerment in our community,” said Deputy Mayor Kanika Tomalin during the meeting.
But the project’s financials drew the ire of several council members, as did unresolved environmental concerns on the property.
“This is a terrible project that is a bad deal,” Council member Robert Blackmon said.
The dual-track debate began with the Horus Construction vote. By securing Council approval, the city will pay about $740,000 for the company, which qualifies as a small and minority business enterprise, to draw up plans for the site. Meanwhile, the city is awaiting results from environmental testing on the site.
Before the vote, Several council members, including Gina Driscoll and Ed Montanari, expressed concern about moving forward with designing homes before receiving the environmental reports, which are due in about 45 days.
“I’m not going to have that on me, down the road, if families are sick,” Driscoll said.
Administration officials said that combining the design work with the environmental remediation is common and most efficient, as remediation can be built into the design. And they said the environmental review and remediation process is strictly regulated by state statute.
The most vocal critic of the project was Blackmon, who rattled off a list of other stalled or failed projects in the area and said he didn’t want this one to join “a historic list of losers.” He supported building the townhomes but proposed scrapping the commercial space — for which the city would have to take out debt but on which the city would not necessarily see a return —and instead taking the $13 million the city would pay in debt service over a 20 year period and breaking it into $25,000 grants for local entrepreneurs.
“Why are we encumbering our entire city with this building that will benefit so few?” he asked.
He also alluded to comments Kriseman made at a March 25 committee meeting, where the mayor suggested certain council members were giving more scrutiny to this project because it’s in the Black community.
“The way I see it is we have to apply extra scrutiny to this project because of all the failures in this community,” Blackmon said. “We have to get things right.”
Those comments perturbed Council member Deborah Figgs-Sanders, who spoke out at length against Blackmon, saying she “will not accept” those projects being called losers. Council member Amy Foster concurred, calling Blackmon’s language “offensive.” Both Foster and Council member Brandi Gabbard articulated strong support for the project.
“I think we need to be cautious about the words that we choose, I think we need to be cautious about the stones that we throw,” Figgs-Sanders said.
Figgs-Sanders’ comments toward Blackmon prompted Montanari, the chair, to remind council members “to speak to the issues at hand.”
The Horus Construction portion passed 6-2, with Figgs-Sanders, Foster, Driscoll, Gabbard, Lisa Wheeler-Bowman and Darden Rice supporting it, and Blackmon and Montanari voting against it.
Next, the Council debated entering into a cooperative agreement with Sankofa, whereby the group would attempt to raise financing for the project, collect community input, help market the site, and create an advisory council to offer feedback on the project. Technically, the body could have voted to move forward with the design component and either table or reject the Sankofa arrangement.
Blackmon again questioned the project, suggesting the agreement bound Sankofa to little of substance.
Driscoll voiced concern that Sankofa, whose board consists of a relatively connected group, represented everyone and left enough room for new voices.
The Council voted 5-3 to enter into the Sankofa agreement, with Driscoll joining Montanari and Blackmon in opposition. The administration plans to bring forth to City Council soon a lease agreement for Sankofa to operate the commercial space.