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Wild about the waterfront

We asked for it. We got it. Your unbridled feelings about downtown St. Petersburg's bayfront pour in.

[Times photo: Bill Serne]
The work day starts early at Albert Whitted Airport. About 7 a.m., workers remove planes and helicopters from the hangars.

By JON WILSON

© St. Petersburg Times,
published September 9, 2001


ST. PETERSBURG -- Okay, said the public, now that you bring it up ...

Ya better be careful with our waterfront!

That's the majority view of more than 200 people who responded to a Neighborhood Times invitation to write about parks and other public venues on the downtown bayfront.

The number, though it may seem small, represents a deluge in terms of a newspaper coupon poll. Even when invited, responses usually don't appear by the score.

This chance to comment was offered only in Neighborhood Times' St. Petersburg editions, and people had to take the time to compose, contemplating an open-ended question simply asking for waterfront ideas.

Passionate and pointed, the responses poured in.

From the entire body of thought, some common themes emerged. Their short version:

Keep our waterfront playful and open.

Don't allow high-rise buildings.

Hang on to what we have, including Albert Whitted Airport.

As might be expected in answer to an open-ended question, replies did not necessarily lend themselves to categorization by percentage, and many were nuanced.

But, to flirt a bit with the details:

Almost half the respondents said in some specific way that they wanted to keep or enhance the parks present already. Several wanted expansion. "Don't touch our open waterfront, not one foot," one writer implored.

No one wanted to eliminate any parks, although one respondent suggested tearing down the airport, Bayfront Center and Florida Power Park to build a bigger, waterfront stadium for the Devil Rays.

Others said they would like to see more walkways, canoe or kayak ramps and bike paths. Some offered other specific leisure-oriented ideas, such as a skate park, a maritime museum and a sunbathing spa like the one that stood on the Pier's approach years ago.

High-rise buildings on or near the waterfront got a forceful thumbs-down, with about 50 writers specifically condemning them. Just one person thought it would be a good idea to build more.

The airport received support from about 45 writers, while about 20 stated opposition. Most of those who favored keeping the airport open did not identify themselves as aviation enthusiasts, but linked their support with the idea of maintaining the waterfront as it is now. Eight others specifically declared they liked the idea of mixed-use redevelopment on the airport's 117 acres, as has been proposed by St. Petersburg architect Tim Clemmons. Seven people nixed that idea.

Twenty-two writers favored keeping the Bayfront Center, though some suggested renovating it or improving the way it's managed. Five people wanted to tear it down, one of those favoring a convention hotel on the site.

The Pier, the port, the city marina and Florida Power Park drew less comment. With rare exceptions, those who did mention the venues said they should be maintained or improved. A bubble of support emerged for bringing cruise ships to the port, and several people suggested developing shuttle boats to Tampa and other Florida ports.

A city government discussion in July prompted the coupon poll.

Administrators first talked about a projected $55-million bill to maintain such spots as the Bayfront Center, Al Lang Field at Florida Power Park and the airport.

That made the City Council decide it's a good time to review what we have. So policymakers have begun a series of workshops to figure out the waterfront's future. The next one is 10 a.m. Monday in Room 100 at City Hall, 175 Fifth St. N.

Council members could decide to repair, renovate or tear down facilities. They could chart a course for development on such sites as, say, the airport -- which is already the subject of a mixed-use proposal. They could decide, in essence, to change nothing -- or opt to construct an entirely new waterfront philosophy.

Mayor Rick Baker said he wasn't surprised to hear how coupon commentary developed.

"I think this community is pretty much dedicated to preserving an open waterfront. At the beginning of this process, I referred to it as a community discussion," said Baker, who acknowledged his own appreciation of a feature many in St. Petersburg describe as unique.

"I'm very strong on the parks," Baker said. "We're down at the waterfront all the time with the kids. We look at the manatees over by the old gondola port (near Granada Terrace). We fish. We never catch anything."

The parks and the other public places came about as a result of a crusade that began early in the 20th century. Boosters favoring a parklike waterfront with lots of recreation won out over those who wanted a more industrial approach.

Since then, most residents have been staunch advocates of the waterfront as public green. And in most cases, it takes a referendum to sell, lease or donate public waterfront or park property.

Some residents even take a proprietary view of property anywhere near the waterfront, not just the public parts. Hence, there is no reticence in criticizing high-rise projects.

The City Council likely will have waterfront notions on its plate well into 2002, said Rene Flowers, the council chairwoman. The goal is to develop a comprehensive plan that links every waterfront element, Flowers said, as opposed to each component having its own blueprint.

Flowers said there hasn't been much dialogue on the subject yet. But she didn't hesitate to make clear her position.

"I most certainly don't want to see any high-rise towers crowding the waterfront area," she said. "I don't want to see a gang of businesses taking away a part of our tourist attraction."

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