St. Petersburg laid the foundation for its current downtown renaissance more than a century ago, when city officials wisely preserved the waterfront for public use. On Thursday, the City Council can expand on that commitment by approving a Downtown Waterfront Master Plan for upgrading public spaces as money becomes available. One unnecessary concept — a hotel and conference center — has provoked criticism and suspicion among a citizenry that has repeatedly rebuffed such for-profit intrusions onto the waterfront. The council should approve the plan but reject the hotel idea. One divisive element should not imperil the master plan's exciting mix of new activity centers, landscaping and infrastructure.
Under St. Petersburg's charter, a referendum must approve any sale or long-term lease of city-owned waterfront or park land. The master plan is not a defensive document designed to build in extra protection — any future council could alter it by a simple majority vote. The plan is an optimistic road map for linking a 7-mile waterfront more effectively for boaters, pedestrians, bicyclists and boaters, creating connecting routes around difficult bottlenecks like Albert Whitted Airport.
From Coffee Pot Bayou on the north to Lassing Park on the south, the plan envisions picnic areas, concession booths, benches, boardwalks and shady promenades — including a pedestrian swing bridge over Salt Creek as a direct link to Lassing Park. It would overhaul Bayboro Harbor with deep-water wharfs and marine-related "development opportunities'' that mix well with an existing commercial area.
AECOM, the engineering consultants who drew up the plan, needlessly suggested that a conference center, parking garage and hotel on what is now a surface parking lot for the Mahaffey Theater and Salvador Dalí Museum could generate income to help pay for other elements in the master plan. That might make financial sense on paper, but it invites a political backlash that neither St. Petersburg nor the master plan can afford.
Residents have long demonstrated an aversion to large, for-profit ventures on that section of the waterfront, like the Tampa Bay Rays' ill-fated 2008 stadium proposal. Council member Steve Kornell vowed this month to reject the entire master plan if the hotel remains on the drawings. That stance is an unwelcome overreach, given that any hotel would require a referendum. But Kornell is reflecting substantial anti-hotel sentiment, fueled in part by city officials' failure to include the hotel in early master plan drafts presented to the public.
The master plan, if fully implemented, carries an ambitious price tag of $500 million to $600 million over 20 years, including public-private partnerships. Mayor Rick Kriseman has tentatively lined up about $20 million from the Intown Community Redevelopment Area taxing district — money that can be spent only on downtown projects. Beyond that, city officials must remember that the master plan is an engaging wish list, not a mandate to adorn the waterfront at the expense of worthy projects in other parts of town.
Over coming months, St. Petersburg will face continued political passion and pressure as Kriseman negotiates Pier Park's design contract to replace the deteriorating inverted pyramid. Pier Park meshes beautifully with the master plan but presents critical remaining issues that should be resolved amid clear thinking and broad community support. The master plan's divisive hotel is an inopportune distraction.
The council should exclude it and then move forward with the master plan.