ST. PETERSBURG — People who live along Fourth Street North say they’ll miss walking to the old Ringside Café for late-night music or Casita Taqueria for a taco lunch.
Regardless, many of them will welcome a new neighbor, Trader Joe’s, though the specialty grocer is pushing a handful of small local businesses out of the neighborhood.
Trader Joe’s happens to be the latest chain looking to blend in with this old commercial corridor where a Carrabbas restaurant and Cold Stone Creamery merge almost seamlessly with an icon of the city’s past, Sunken Gardens’ 1930s-era visitor center.
Like the city’s other historic thoroughfare, Central Avenue, redevelopment and new store openings have revived the section of Fourth Street between downtown and 30th Avenue North.
But while Central almost exclusively has drawn smaller, independent shops and restaurants to its two lanes between downtown and 34th Street, Fresh Market, Panera Bread and Chipotle are among the names that masses of drivers now pass by on Fourth.
Their attraction to this two-mile stretch just north of downtown might be the favorable demographics of nearby middle- to upper-income neighborhoods such as Old Northeast, Snell Isle and Crescent Heights. A busy, four-lane road that runs north to Interstate 275 and Tampa is likely another selling point for national brands that rely heavily on car traffic to turn profits.
“As a corridor, it’s (Fourth Street) very nice and I think that as it continues to attract upscale businesses, banks, nice chain restaurants and stores, that’s only going to enhance it,” said Kristen Noakes-Fry, incoming president of the Crescent Heights Neighborhood Association.
While some fans of the businesses displaced by Trader Joe’s lament another loss to Fourth Street’s local, old Florida character, a majority of people at a recent neighborhood meeting was pleased the grocer is coming in, Noakes-Fry said.
More than 70 people came out to talk with the developer of the site between 27th and 28th Avenue North. They asked about parking, zoning, the aesthetics of the new building and the possible nuisance of more traffic on their neighborhoods’ brick streets.
“I didn’t hear anybody raise any kind of objection about the difference between something being a local business or a franchise or chain,” Noakes-Fry said.
Developer Jay Miller is no big business investor sweeping in from out of town to make a quick dollar. He lives in St. Petersburg and helped revamp a space farther south on Fourth Street that houses the boutique home furnishing store Being.
Like other newly constructed buildings in this district, the Trader Joe’s will follow a traditional urban aesthetic: parking lot in the back and an attractive façade along the front sidewalk, meant to blend with its surroundings.
Miller even has offered to help relocate the small businesses vacating the property to other places in the city.
Most of them have found new homes. Ringside will bring its popular music acts to the old Detroit Hotel downtown starting this week. The Classy Closet boutique and Casita Taqueria will join the growing mass of locally-owned businesses that populate Central Avenue.
“I consider us fortunate and I hope, obviously, all these businesses are successful and that they all have a future,” said Greg Pugh, longtime owner of Ringside, a converted boarding house that’s about four years shy of being a century old.
Being forced to leave is tough and scary for Pugh, but he says he can’t blame the property’s owner for the decision to make way for Trader Joe’s.
“That’s capitalism, right?” he said.
“I’m not knocking it. I’m living it.”
To those committed to preserving St. Petersburg’s local flavor, Fourth Street’s influx of corporately-owned businesses, however popular, diminishes what makes the city special.
“What makes our city unique? It’s not going to be that we have a Trader Joe’s,” said Olga Bof, who heads the business alliance Keep Saint Petersburg Local.
After the Trader Joe’s announcement in October, Casita Taqueria’s owners and patrons used the restaurant’s Facebook page to voice their displeasure at seeing a favorite lunch spot uprooted. Some criticized outgoing Mayor Bill Foster for his enthusiastic comments about the new store while others questioned why this area, which already has many grocers, needs yet another.
Mayor-elect Rick Kriseman even weighed in on the discussion in the run-up to his victory over Foster in the November election.
“I prefer that we don’t displace the independent, small businesses that give St. Pete its unique flavor and culture,” he wrote.
Unlike a proposed Wal-Mart store, though, which sometimes draws loud and organized protest, Trader Joe’s seems to have a “cult” appeal for many people, and cities often celebrate its arrival, says Phoenix-based retail real estate consultant Jeff Green, who has tracked the company’s nationwide growth.
People who live near the corridor wouldn’t necessarily be happy to see any chain store build here, but grocers known for high quality such as Trader Joe’s and Fresh Market have a lot of appeal, especially for a wave of young professionals who have moved to this area in recent years, said Greg Holden, a Crescent Heights association board member and past president.
“We as a neighborhood want to see successful businesses surrounding our neighborhood,” he said.
The corridor has a favorable mix of quality local and corporate businesses that complement one another, Holden says, and he hopes it will stay that way.
“I don’t think anybody wants the neighborhood to be boxed in by chain commercial stores,” he said.
The city has used zoning restrictions to prevent Fourth Street and Central Avenue from being transformed into a row of monotonous big-box stores and parking lots.
Why chains have coalesced on Fourth while Central is being repopulated by local shops might be tied to the way customers access them.
Central, from downtown to 34th Street, lends itself better to pedestrians as a slower two-lane road lined with rows of shops and restaurants.
Though residents who live along Fourth enjoy walking or biking to shops nearby, car traffic is faster and comes in a much higher volume along four lanes.
City officials, though, haven’t made any particular efforts to draw more big-name stores and restaurants to this section of Fourth, development director Dave Goodwin said.
“They’re going to self-select where they want to go,” he said. “The good thing is there’s a healthy mix of both kids of business.”
Trader Joe’s also is known for building in areas where there’s already a critical mass of businesses and traffic, Green said.
That makes sense to David Mullholland, whose bike shop will be located between Fresh Market and the new Trader Joe’s.
Just to the north, there’s the peculiar phenomenon of two Publix grocery stores directly across the street from each other. Mullholland says his sales have gone up since moving to Fourth, even though there are other bike shops close by.
“And there’s a lot of wrecks on 30th [Avenue] and Fourth. That’s an indication of how many cars are going through,” he said.
As traffic and land values have risen through the years and bigger chains have started to cluster here, Pugh says it has been tough for smaller, local merchants to hang on.
He is hopeful relocating among a cluster of bars and nightlife hangouts downtown ultimately will be a lift for Ringside.
Pugh says he has nothing against Trader Joe’s in general; he used to shop at one years ago when he lived in California.
He hasn’t decided how he feels about the particular new store that’s pushing him out.
“If I do well, I’ll feel great about it,” he said.
“If I don’t, I’m not going to feel so good about it.”