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Monday, Sep 22, 2014

Experts float fixes for St. Pete’s waterfront


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ST. PETERSBURG — City and business leaders recently hired outside planning and real estate experts, hoping to get a critical perspective on how the city could improve its signature waterfront.

The results might be hard for those local leaders to swallow.

City icons like Al Lang Stadium and Albert Whitted Municipal Airport act as major barriers along the waterfront and should be razed or reconfigured, the panel of experts from the Urban Land Institute said at a presentation at the Vinoy Renaissance hotel on Friday. And scenic drives along Bayshore Drive should be limited, with the road made more pedestrian and bicycle friendly.

Among the panel’s other recommendations:

◆ Transit links from Mirror Lake Park to The Pier, and between the university and hospital district to downtown

◆ A pedestrian swing bridge across North Basin

◆ Turn parking lots at the entrance to The Pier into a park or venue

◆ Extend Beach Drive one block south

◆ Rename First Street South “University Way” to increase University of South Florida St. Petersburg’s profile

Panel members acknowledged the city has done a remarkable job protecting its waterfront and enhancing it with museums, shops and restaurants.

But there was strong criticism of a lack of transit and public art. Residents have limited or no access to about 40 percent of the waterfront, the planners said. The city also does not do enough to market itself to businesses or to partner with the private sector to fund projects, and the downtown lacks information signs to help tourists find their way.

“These amenities are like pearls without a necklace because there is little in the way of signage and way-finding to help visitors,” said David Gazek, a California consultant who specializes in real estate.

Members of the panel, who arrived in St. Petersburg on Sunday, spent the week walking and cycling the city’s waterfront and downtown, reviewing information and interviewing more than 120 residents, city leaders and others.

The city and the St. Petersburg Area Chamber of Commerce raised $125,000 to bring the nonprofit group, regarded as a center of excellence in planning and land-use, to the city. The institute’s findings will be written up in a more detailed report within 90 days. It will be used to help the city come up with a master plan to guide development, decades into the future, of seven miles of almost contiguous publicly owned waterfront — from Coffee Pot Bayou to the north to Lassing Park to the south.

The plan, which the city charter states must be completed by July 2015, also is intended to generate ideas to continue the revitalization of downtown while preserving the city’s signature waterfront land.

“This is the first step; now the work begins,” said Mayor Bill Foster. “They put a pencil drawing on the canvas; now it’s up to us as a community to fill in the color.”

But as the recent debate about The Pier showed, getting consensus on radical changes to the city’s waterfront is difficult.

Although mainly used for soccer by the Tampa Bay Rowdies, Al Lang Stadium reflects the city’s history as the original home of baseball spring training. Rebuilding it as a multi-purpose arena likely would raise heated discussion, especially with the Tampa Bay Rays considering a move from the city.

Equally controversial would be the panel’s proposal to move hangars at Albert Whitted once the city decommissions a waste-water treatment facility at the airport. Although few of them use it, an overwhelming percentage of residents in 2003 voted to keep the airport rather than split it into a park and development site.

As for The Pier or a potential replacement, the panel limited its comments, stating the city should continue its tradition of having a pier and rebuild it in a modest fashion.

Panel member Mike Higbee, managing director of DC Development in Indianapolis, acknowledged the panel tiptoed around some of the city’s more controversial issues.

But changes to the airport and stadium would be key to linking the waterfront to USF St. Petersburg and the city’s medical corridor. That area south of the city’s downtown, which the panel dubbed the innovation district, already provides roughly 6,700 of 18,000 jobs in the city’s downtown and serves some 6,000 students.

Better access to Beach Drive and the city’s downtown and enhancement of the waterfront south of those areas would help attract more employers, said Robert Wolcheski, a Washington D.C. consultant who has worked on transit-orientated development.

“Clearly this is the place that has the opportunities to grow,” he said.

Other proposals include adding more hotels and affordable family-friendly dining options to compliment more upscale restaurants on Beach Drive. There is also a need for more boat slips for people who visit by water, and family attractions like a splash pool.

With homebuyers increasingly turning away from suburbs and choosing more urban areas where they can walk to restaurants and shops, St. Petersburg’s downtown already is positioned to attract more residents, panel members said. Adding the city’s waterfront to that mix should give St. Petersburg an edge.

“It will distinguish St. Petersburg from many other comparable cities that you compete with on a daily basis,” Higbee said.codonnell@tampatrib.com

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Twitter: @codonnellTBO

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