Pasadena Shopping Center encompasses a sea of parking spaces, the vast majority of them empty.
A locally-owned Italian restaurant, a pack-and-send shop and a medical lab are among the tenants of the shopping center at the southwest corner of Gulfport Boulevard and Pasadena Avenue, which until several years ago had a Publix for an anchor.
Both of the men who want to be mayor here think they know what should replace the gaping vacancy that’s been left there.
Their visions for the shopping center – and the city as a whole – are wildly divergent. One wants to court a major retailer, while the other plans to overhaul the city’s development laws.
Retired mutual funds manager Dan Calabria says he’d like to see Wal-Mart – a “mini-Wal-Mart” – set up shop where Publix used to be.
“I like Wal-Mart. OK?” the 77-year-old said, brushing aside the argument that the chain tends to crush local competitors. “There’ll be more mom-and-pop shops as a result. … We’ve got to get a message out that South Pasadena is open for business.”
Calabria’s opponent, Interim Mayor Larry Crowley, sees something far different at the shopping center.
“[Wal-Mart] is commerce, but it’s not exciting commerce for me,” he said. “That’s waterfront there. … I would like to see a mixed-use project there.”
Kathleen Peters gave up the mayor’s job after getting elected to the state Legislature in November, and the city commission appointed Crowley to serve until a replacement could be elected.
This small city, where the median age is 71, has a history of quiet elections, and many candidates run unopposed for office. But the runup to the March 12 election has become a contentious debate over how to redefine a community still struggling with its identity in the wake of a recession.
Squeezed between west St. Petersburg, St. Pete Beach and Treasure Island, South Pasadena has a substantial waterfront, but you wouldn’t know it from driving along the city’s traffic-choked main drag, which is hazardous for pedestrians. Tall sailboat masts are barely visible as they sway in the Intracoastal Waterway beyond Florida Orange Groves Winery, Ted Peter’s Famous Smoked Fish and Dunkin’ Donuts.
The 50-year-old Crowley, elected to the city commission in 2004, has been president of Cutting Edge Granite since 1999 and lived in town since 1993. As South Pasadena’s interim mayor, Crowley has been a strong supporter of a plan that would reduce Pasadena Avenue from six lanes to four, ease building height restrictions and revitalize the waterfront. The aim is to foster pedestrian-friendly, mixed-use development in a city he said is often seen as a pass-through town.
But Calabria said the plan would increase congestion, and that the local economy could benefit from Pasadena’s buffer-zone status by offering lower-price retail alternatives for beachgoers.
“I see us as a gateway to the beaches,” the 19-year resident said. “And we ought to take advantage of that.”
A Wednesday-night candidate forum at the Harborside condominium complex drew about three dozen people – mostly residents of the waterfront community including retiree Tony Catalioto. He said all the empty storefronts in South Pasadena are the big issue for him.
“Something has to be done about that,” said Catalioto, who favors the idea of a Wal-Mart over more residential development. “I think we need more business taxpayers.”
Christine Jordan, another Harborside resident, said she thinks revamping development code is a clear path to revitalizing the economy.
“Obviously, we have a lot of property here that should be attractive to businesses, but if they’re not coming, then there’s a problem with the way that we’ve got our city structured and the plans that we don’t have in place.”
While the two candidates disagree on how to deal with the dangerous traffic on South Pasadena Avenue and how to revitalize the economy, both say the city should bury utility cables, despite the hefty price tag. Cities including Treasure Island have explored the concept to prevent outages that high winds frequently cause.
“Hallelujah,” Calabria said. “We need to do that. It’s a mess.”