Building boom

Noise from wrecking balls and young people are starting to awaken a city once known as God's Waiting Room.

Published July 16, 2006



The wrecking ball hits. The building's guts splay out, revealing a mess of tangled wires and rusted steel beams. Crunch! Crack!

The demolition of the BayView Tower downtown has become the sound track to Judith Bick's day, permeating the quiet condo she shares with her mother.

Bick, 64, moved into the Bayfront Tower condominium eight years ago from New York. She's used to city noise - cars honking, people shouting.

"But, perhaps because I'm not living in a huge city anymore, my expectations are different," she said. "I just thought on a Sunday morning I could sleep past 7:30."

It's the new sound of downtown, clamor that for many signifies the tension of a booming city trying to balance its small-town identity with a fast-rising skyline.

It's the sound of growing pains.

The city's tranquility once drew hordes of retirees. Now it's loudly shaking loose of its fading reputation as God's Waiting Room. Younger crowds are being lured here by the noise downtown: rock concerts at Jannus Landing and Vinoy Park and the monthly "Get Down Town" event with live music on Central Avenue.

Thousands more come every year to hear cars scream around an 1.8-mile track for the Honda Grand Prix.

And there's the cacophony from development projects that are creating thousands of jobs for the burgeoning younger population, sounds that have become a part of life for about 5,000 people now living downtown.

As the noise echoes through once silent streets, the city's fate is pondered by residents and city leaders.

Many fear what may be lost.

"Down the road, maybe 10 to 15 years from now, I don't think the average guy like me can live in St. Pete anymore," said Larry Williams, 44.

It's a worry echoed across the country, in other cities that are noisily outgrowing their small town status.

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Williams said every "Boom!" from the wrecking ball a block from his hot dog cart reminds him that the cost of living here is rapidly rising.

A native of St. Petersburg, he recently moved his family to cheaper housing. And because of dust and din, he's moved his business down First Street to Central Avenue during the demolition of BayView Tower, formerly a federal building.

It's being replaced by a $125-million residential-retail-office complex called Signature Place. The 35-story project includes $7-million units. It's tied with a planned condo, Arts Village, as the city's tallest building.

Construction noise doesn't bother Williams. But the rapid development downtown is disturbing, he said.

"When it's eventually all condos, what if there's a real estate bust and they all sit empty and quiet, like the old St. Pete?" Williams said. "Who'll be left to ask: Was it worth it?"

Similar worries arose three decades ago when the city first tried to distance itself from its image as a retiree haven, said Maria Vesperi, the author of City of Green Benches: Growing Old in a New Downtown.

In 1969, the city tore out all of the famed green benches downtown where retirees would rest, chat, flirt. It began trying to attract the younger and more affluent, as older, lower-income residents were priced out.

That trend continues.

"It's a serious problem," said Vesperi, an anthropologist who is also a trustee of the Poynter Institute, which owns the St. Petersburg Times.

Over the past eight years, St. Petersburg has added more than $1.5-billion in development projects.

As downtown grows, some groups are adding volume to their call to direct funds to low-income areas.

Trenia Byrd Cox, president of the St. Petersburg branch of the NAACP, said black and low-income residents across the city are "still struggling with a lack of affordable housing."

The situation is most dire in mostly black areas of Midtown, said Omavi Bailey of the International People's Democratic Uhuru Movement.

"We're fighting over crumbs while the city is using all its resources downtown," he said. "The real question is, who are they doing it for?"

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In the decade since she opened her new age store Heavenly Things, at 216 First Ave. N, Lynne Alexander has watched other mom and pop shops downtown disappear.

Her store faces the site of the soon-to-be-glitzy Grand Bohemian Hotel & Residences, which will include penthouses for $5-million.

Outside her shop, dusty construction workers operate giant machines. Inside, their noise is drowned out by the chants, guitars, flutes and sitars of a Magical Healing Mantras CD.

St. Petersburg is "light years" from where it was a few decades ago, said Alexander, a petite 68-year-old.

"The development is bringing a lot of people downtown, so it's becoming a vibrant city again," she said. "But are all the condos good for the average, middle class individual? No."

Some of the new noises downtown are so loud they rattle her windows, she said, especially those from Jannus Landing around the corner.

Still, the concert venue delivers young shoppers to her serene shop.

Concerts and the restaurants and bars in Baywalk have seduced back former resident Matt Backe, 29.

Backe is an account manager for Fidelity on Second Avenue S. He lives in Clearwater but was raised in St. Petersburg. When he lived here, he never went downtown.

"There was nothing," he said.

Last year, about 1,100 events were held downtown. Now, Backe and his friends drive back here at night.

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St. Petersburg has been getting taller and younger, but it's still small town enough to hear the concerns of residents, city officials insist.

Mayor Rick Baker recently called the city's first historic preservation summit to address incentives for retaining historic property.

"Development is good, but we don't want to lose the character," he said.

And a few weeks ago, after a few residents of Bayfront Tower complained about the noise from the construction site nearby, the city set up a meeting with the developer, Gulf Atlantic Real Estate Corp.

The police found the wrecking ball and other noise from construction didn't violate city codes, falling within the 75-decibel limit permitted within the commercial zoned district, about the same as freeway traffic.

Even so, the developer agreed to limit the wrecking ball to six days a week. And they'll wait until 8 a.m. to begin, said Julie Weston, the city's director of development.

Similar compromises have been made across downtown, after residents suddenly found themselves neighbors to a loud project.

Weston said she has never talked to a developer "who just said no." Most understand they're building in a city where they must also be mindful of their neighbors, she said.

Judith Bick said she doesn't expect total silence from her neighboring project, just less frequent din.

Before moving here, she lived in parts of New York including Queens.

"I love noise; I love cities," she said. "But I thought we should be entitled to one quiet morning."

What does the noise of construction downtown mean to her now?

"Growth," Bick said. "It means the value of my property is going up."