In marriage of entities, parking is a concern
By SHARON L. BOND, Neighborhood Times Business Editor
ST. PETERSBURG -- When Sunken Gardens, Great Explorations museum and Carrabba's Italian Grill are up and going, their joint location on Fourth Street N could suffer the same fate as Ruggeri's restaurant in St. Louis.
"Nobody goes there anymore. It's too crowded." That's how the eloquent linguist Yogi Berra lamented one of his favorite spots.
St. Petersburg officials should hope they have the crowds that Berra shunned. Sunken Gardens was a worn tourist spot that voters approved the city buying and restoring. It has been remade in grand style and leased space to the restaurant and museum. The gardens are open now, and all three venues should be operating at 1825 Fourth St. N by April 1.
If the Yogism applies, will there be enough parking?
"It's a great problem to have: What are we going to do with all these cars?" said Philip L. Oropesa, St. Petersburg's parking manager, mentioning Berra's famous line.
The restaurant, gardens and museum will share a 187-space parking lot, but the sharing is not equal. Carrabba's, a for-profit entity, has dibs on two-thirds of the spaces from 4 p.m. until midnight. Great Explorations, a not-for-profit, and Sunken Gardens, owned by the city, operate during the day, closing at 4:30 p.m.
Because of the opposing operating hours, officials don't expect any problem. But Sunken Gardens and Great Explorations each have a number of evening events during the year. Sunken Gardens often is booked for weddings and has a holiday garden stroll; Great Explorations is a popular destination for private and corporate parties.
Carrabba's got 125 spaces as a compromise between what it wanted and what the city believed it needed to be able to operate the business, Oropesa said. Carrabba's lease guarantees those spaces from 4 p.m. to midnight only. During the day those spaces are for Sunken Gardens and Great Explorations, Oropesa said.
Carrabba's should be open by the end of March, according to Marty Reichenthal, joint venture partner for Florida's west coast for Carrabba's. It will be the second in the city.
"I think it probably will help everybody that another restaurant is there," Reichenthal said, referring to Outback Steakhouse across the street. "It will let people know about the gardens, and they are a lot nicer than they used to be."
Oropesa mentions the "synergy of the three venues." Diners facing the usual 30-minute to 40-minute delay for a seat at Carrabba's on Saturday night could see enough of Sunken Gardens through its iron fence (yet to be built) that they decide to come back.
Still, possible crowding is enough of a concern that a city task force has been considering several relief measures, including building a parking deck that would add 100 spaces at Sunken Gardens. The deck would be a last resort, Oropesa said. It would be a one-story open deck built on the south end of the existing lot and costing between $500,000 to $700,000.
Representatives from the gardens and museum acknowledge concern over parking.
"Frankly, it's going to be a challenge. There are so many of us now down there. It's clearly something we are going to have to work patiently through," said Wendy Sikora, marketing director for Great Explorations.
But she added that she did not see parking as a problem.
"We are just so grateful to be there and so excited."
Mary Campbell, parks operations manager for the city, who is in charge of Sunken Gardens had a similar assessment.
"We know we will have some challenges. We don't anticipate any problems during a normal day," Campbell said. She estimates the gardens will draw from 60,000 to 80,000 visitors per year.
Demand for parking may come from Sunken Gardens' neighbor across the street. The old Bradford Coachhouse has been renovated to house Outback Steakhouse and Panera Bread. Outback is a crowd drawer, and Panera is proving popular.
"Parking is tough for both those venues. Some folks park across the street at Sunken Gardens," Oropesa said.
Carrabba's Italian Grill is part of the Outback Chain, so will Outback patrons feel the Sunken Gardens lot is theirs?
It's possible that Sunken Gardens will get some Outback patrons. But also, Sunken Gardens, Great Explorations or Carrabba's patrons might use Outback's spaces, Oropesa said.
Other relief measures include valet parking, which Carrabba's already uses at its Tyrone location, Oropesa said. If there were to be a wedding on a Saturday night at Sunken Gardens, valet parking could be used.
If needed, officials could charge for parking to ensure patrons are indeed going to the three venues the lot serves. A diner would pay $5, which might be refunded to him if he brings out a Carrabba's receipt, for example.
Shuttle buses also could be used for evening events at Sunken Gardens and Great Explorations to keep their patrons from tangling with diners.
"It's going to be interesting," Oropesa said. "It's a shared resource situation. It's not going to be as problematic as everyone believes it will be."
Oropesa hedges a bit: "Parking is always, always an issue in St. Petersburg."
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