St. Petersburg approves plan to preserve small storefronts

A proposal to benefit small businesses and preserve the character in St. Petersburg downtown passes, but doesn't get complete buy-in from property owners and developers
The city wants to preserve small storefronts in key downtown areas. [OCTAVIO JONES   |   Times ]
The city wants to preserve small storefronts in key downtown areas. [OCTAVIO JONES | Times ]
Published April 19

ST. PETERSBURG — The City Council has approved a plan aimed at supporting small businesses and preserving the character of key downtown areas known for their shops and restaurants.

The plan establishes what is being called the Storefront Conservation Corridor plan. It encompasses Beach Drive from Fifth Avenue N to First Avenue S and Central Avenue from First Street to 31st Street.

The words “vibe,” and "cool," unheard of in connection to downtown St. Petersburg just a few years ago, came up several times during Thursday's council discussions and from those who spoke for and against the plan. And in an unusual alliance of sorts, developers, property owners and the preservation group Preserve the ‘Burg all seemed to agree that more work could be done to improve the initiative.

Council member Darden Rice was in favor of a brief delay. She proposed taking developers and property owners up on their offer to help pay for a third-party study and to hold a community summit “to discuss and provide insight and direction."

Another council member, Brandi Gabbard, who is in real estate, spoke of her concern for property owners.

“Something like this has never been done before, so we have no idea what it is going to do," she said. "That’s why I am open to doing this study.”

But Council member Gina Driscoll was among those opposed to a delay. The ordinance passed 6-2, with Rice and Council member Ed Montanari voting against.

"I do think it is time to move this forward," Mayor Rick Kriseman said.

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Broadly, the new ordinance will regulate the size of storefronts on specified Central Avenue and Beach Drive blocks and establish a minimum number of small store fronts and a maximum of large ones, said Derek Kilborn, manager of the Urban Planning and Historic Preservation Division. Another piece of the plan, approved in March, will offer incentives to small businesses.

Among those opposing parts of the plan was Mack Feldman, who with his father, Larry, and their partners own several buildings in the affected area. He told the council that under the new ordinance, the Lemongrass, one of their tenants, would not be allowed to expand. The business is locally owned, he emphasized.

His father told the council that his company is the largest owner of office buildings in the city’s downtown and that the ordinance will greatly restrict development. For instance, he said, the new regulations would not permit a “to-die-for tenant” like Apple Computer, the “biggest driver of traffic” to a mall or to a retail center.

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Kilborn said the city has been working on the storefront plan since 2017 and that it has evolved in response to feedback from the community.

“When we started this process, we individually measured every storefront in the corridors. We then interpreted that data by block to identify what is the existing distribution of small, medium and large storefronts," Kilborn said.

Though they approved the ordinance, the City Council wants the legal department to return in June with an amendment that addresses adaptive reuse of existing buildings. Property owners have argued that the proposal should apply only to new construction, while the city says that wouldn’t help preserve small storefronts.

Jason Rutland Spitzer, who with his mother, Nancy Rutland, operate their family’s 18,000 square feet of retail, restaurant and office space downtown, is in favor of the adaptive use provision.

In a letter to council members, Spitzer — great-grandson of Hubert Rutland Sr., a St. Petersburg banker, businessman and philanthropist — suggested that all buildings built before 1980 be exempt.

“This change will encourage current and future owners of historical buildings to rehabilitate, preserve and renovate these important buildings as opposed to demolishing them, which is often the more lucrative option,” he wrote.

Contact Waveney Ann Moore at [email protected] or (727) 892-2283. Follow @wmooretimes.

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