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When it comes to downtowns, St. Petersburg gets the last laugh

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© St. Petersburg Times,
published December 11, 2001

Mayor Dick Greco is expected to announce plans soon to build apartments in downtown Tampa.

Pinch me, would you?

Plans, plans, so many plans there have been to revive the city's awful downtown.

Here's a sampling. I remember the plans, one and then the other, to return the Floridan hotel to its old greatness. Both plans died.

Local luminaries turned out to herald a new life for the defunct Maas Brothers department store. After the whoop-de-doo, not another word was said.

This was some years ago. To give you an idea of how nothing changes, this year the bright lights of the Hillsborough County Commission tried to kill plans for a history museum in downtown. Apparently the commissioners think we have no history.

We do, and I have lived nearly a generation of it.

For 18 years, I've worked in downtown Tampa. I had come from the North, and was used to living in a city and I see now I was dopey with homesickness. That explains my earnest writings at the time about the latest doomed-to-flop rescue operation for downtown. Except for a few soulless skyscrapers that welcome nobody but rich executives and the clerks who tend to them and a police headquarters, almost nothing is different, especially at night.

If you want to see what can happen at night in a Tampa Bay city, you have to go to that town Tampa laughs at, St. Petersburg.

My husband and I were in St. Petersburg's downtown Saturday night.

This is what we found.

A steady but not heavy stream of people on the sidewalks, and cars passing on the streets.

Several terrific restaurants were open. We ate at one of them, where the meal was pricey but well worth it.

None of the restaurants appeared to be packed with customers. They had just enough people to make the service pleasant and the noise level bearable. Straub Park, between the Renaissance Vinoy Resort and the Museum of Fine Arts, was lit brightly with holiday decorations. It was, in short, the ideal time to take in downtown's gallery walk.

Once a month, the downtown art galleries open in the evening so visitors can admire or even buy. The pickings suited every eye and pocketbook. I saw earrings for $30 and paintings for $8,000.

You cannot do any of this in downtown Tampa. Someday you might, if Greco's cultural arts district takes off. There we go with promises again.

A couple of things make the two downtowns sharply different, and the presence of Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg has nothing to do with it. When I took that walk Saturday night, we were not in baseball season, certainly.

One is that St. Petersburg's downtown buildings are built to scale. The few high rises -- including two recent condo projects -- are oddly out of place, like knitting needles stuck into the top of a two-layer cake.

The other is that people already live to the north and south of downtown. They even live to the east, on their boats in the city marina.

This alone could explain the great success of St. Petersburg's BayWalk, also in downtown, with its draw of movies and high-end shops. Last Saturday night, BayWalk was mobbed.

Channelside at the eastern edge of downtown Tampa is supposed to duplicate this, but the district struggles as a result of the emptiness around it. Channelside does not however struggle as much as Centro Ybor, where the movies and the shops have to compete with the drunken kids coming off bar-lined Seventh Avenue.

I don't know what difference saying this makes. Downtown Tampa will not succeed until it has a passable street life; and you won't find that in some enormous project, but in the medium-sized storefronts and shops where the peculiar and the ordinary mix.

Maybe this will come someday. For some reason -- stubbornness probably -- I am not giving up entirely yet.

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