ST. PETERSBURG — Fearful that the city could end up with a controversy similar to The Pier battle, council members are putting the brakes on the development of a downtown waterfront master plan.
Council members this week delayed city officials from beginning contract negotiations with Los Angeles firm AECOM on a $500,000 contract to produce a plan to serve as a blueprint for future development on the city’s signature waterfront.
The main concerns are recommendations, including the redevelopment of Al Lang Stadium, that were included in a $125,000 study by the Urban Land Institute, a nonprofit group regarded as a center of excellence in planning and land use. The report is intended to be part of the input into development of the master plan.
The delay has highlighted tension between the council and the St. Petersburg Chamber of Commerce regarding who is moving the project forward. The chamber raised $100,000 toward the ULI study and formed a community task force to ensure public input. The city paid $25,000 toward the study, which never was formally presented to the council.
Now council members plan to discuss the 38-page study, which has been posted on the city’s website for about a month, at a workshop on Thursday before allowing the city to begin negotiations with consultants.
Councilman Karl Nurse said the ULI recommendation to redevelop Al Lang Stadium, symbolic of the city’s history as the home of spring training, into a soccer or generic sports stadium is likely to be controversial. Even more contentious could be a recommendation to reconfigure terminals at Albert Whitted Airport, which was spared from redevelopment by residents in a contentious 2003 referendum.
Recommendations in reports have a way of becoming concrete proposals, Nurse warned. He said a similar approach led to the city’s pier advisory task force proposing the Lens design, which voters soundly rejected in August after the city already had spent $4 million on the project.
“Staff sort of gave them kickoff instructions and led us down a path that got us in trouble; that’s what I’m trying to avoid here,” Nurse said. “We had an ugly referendum battle about (the airport). I prefer not to refight that battle.”
But Ross Preville, who is heading the task force, said the council is misunderstanding the purpose of the ULI report. It was always intended to be just part of the input in a process that includes more opportunities for the public and the council to weigh in. The study was conducted by real estate and planning experts unfamiliar with St. Petersburg who could look at the city with fresh eyes and come up with creative suggestions, he said.
“I didn’t think moving forward with the consultant would be this difficult,” Preville said. “It’s not like the consultant has to follow the ULI plan.”
Preville said he plans to attend Thursday’s workshop but doubts it will add value to the development of the plan.
“Once a consultant gets on board and there is public input, I’m not really sure how this meeting will have any bearing on it,” he said.
The city is required to adopt the plan by July 2015, the result of a 2011 charter amendment approved by voters. It is intended to govern future development of the shoreline and generate ideas to continue the revitalization of downtown while preserving the city’s signature waterfront land.
It is expected to include recommendations on how to accommodate parking without clogging the area with parking lots, whether to add marina parking for day-trippers to visit downtown, and how best to add public art to the waterfront.
But the $500,000 price of the report also has concerned council members, who worry that residents will see it as more money being spent on the city’s already affluent downtown.
“We have areas of our city that have been neglected for a while; now, we’re spending half a million on a plan for an area that has had a lot of money already spent on it?” Councilman Steve Kornell said.
Councilman Jim Kennedy asked whether the city can lower the cost by reducing the scope of the study. As proposed, it would cover 7 miles of almost contiguous publicly owned land, from Coffee Pot Bayou in the north to Lassing Park in the south.
But Councilwoman Darden Rice, who served on the charter review commission that recommended development of a plan, said it is needed to prevent piecemeal development gradually eroding the waterfront.
“Without a comprehensive plan in place, it’s going to die the death of a thousand cuts,” she said.