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Darden Rice throws out fourth ‘no’ on downtown hotel and convention center

in The Bay and the 'Burg/Top Headlines by

St. Pete City Council is set to vote on the long-anticipated downtown waterfront masterplan at its meeting Thursday afternoon. Central to the debate is whether or not the plan will include a controversial hotel and conference center on parking lot land near the Mahaffey Theater.

Three council members – Steve Kornell, Wengay Newton and Karl Nurse — had opposed the plan. But with just three dissenters, it could have still passed.

Now there is a fourth dissenter – Darden Rice.

In a letter to council and Mayor Rick Kriseman Tuesday, Rice shifted her ambiguity on the issue into the “no” camp.

“The current parking lot in south basin is hard to defend, but the suggestion of more private development in that area would be an overcorrection that flies in the face of what the public has sought so long to wisely protect for posterity,” Rice wrote in the letter.

Earlier in the letter Rice penned an eloquent review of St. Pete’s downtown waterfront history.

“St. Petersburg pioneer and civic activist William Straub faced many years of hard work and weathered battles up and down as he first sought to create what was virtually unheard of in 1900: a municipally owned waterfront,” she wrote. “Even the efforts of pioneer planner John Nolen … have been at times soundly rebuffed by utilitarian economies and mindsets, only to be resuscitated and fondly honored by later generations who appreciated the balance of an urban environment with open space, view corridors, and dedicated uses of public space.”

John Nolen was a revered city planner whose ideas surrounding public parks and waterfront green space were soundly rejected by voters in the 1920s.

Despite her rejection of the convention center proposal, Rice’s letter focuses much on the positives of the waterfront master plan.

“I think it goes further to democratize public space and anticipate a waterfront that genuinely feels like it belongs to all of us, not just the fortunate few who live paces within its proximity,” she wrote of the plan’s inclusion of public space and connectivity between parks.

“However, upon much reflection, I think we need to keep firmly in mind a will to resist the temptations of a recently improved economy, a growing population and visitor base, and the impulse to build in the waterfront park boundaries under the banner of “revitalization” and “pragmatism,” she wrote.

Kornell, who represents parts of South St. Pete including Pinellas Point and its vast waterfront, took to Facebook to voice his concerns over the inclusion of a hotel and convention center.

“When, during a months-long waterfront master plan process, a waterfront hotel and convention center was inserted into the plan at a late stage, I asked that it be removed. When it was not, I stood up and refused to vote for the final plan unless this part was removed,” he wrote to a barrage of support from constuents following him on Facebook.

But Kornell added another layer – he implied city staff has an agenda.

“Does anyone else wonder why city staff fights to keep it in the plan while telling us it really doesn’t matter? I don’t think so,” he wrote.

In response to the outcry from a good chunk of City Council, and criticism from the public as well, staff will present two versions of the downtown waterfront master plan to council Thursday.

One will include the hotel and convention center. The other will not. With four dissenting council members, the debate seems all but dead.

Regardless, the planning department staff is still supportive of the hotel and convention center. They argue such development would generate revenue that could then be used to fund other city projects.

In addition to opposing the convention center and hotel ideas, Rice is also asking the city’s planning department to remove “private-run institutions” in the South Basin in both verbiage and maps.

She also wants to add back in plans for pedestrian access on Dali Boulevard between First Street and to address the lack of green space in the North section of the Pier uplands.

Whatever downtown waterfront master plan is ultimately decided upon will not be mandatory; however, it will serve as a guide for the city for future projects.

Thursday’s meeting begins at 3 p.m. but the waterfront master plan item isn’t expected to come up until the early evening.

Janelle Irwin has been a professional journalist covering local news and politics in the Tampa Bay area since 2003. She also hosts a weekly political talk show on WMNF Community radio. Janelle formerly served as the sole staff reporter for WMNF News and previously covered news for Patch.com and various local neighborhood newsletters. Her work has been featured in the New York Daily News, Free Speech Radio News and Florida Public Radio and she's been interviewed by radio stations across the nation for her coverage of the 2012 Republican National Convention. Janelle is a diehard news junkie who isn't afraid to take on big names in local politics including Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, the dirty business of trash and recycling in St. Pete and the ongoing Pier debacle. Her work as a reporter and radio host has earned her two WMNF awards including News Volunteer of the Year and Public Affairs Volunteer of the Year. Janelle is also the devoted mother to three brilliant and beautiful daughters who are a constant source of inspiration and occasional blogging fodder. To contact, email janelle@floridapolitics.com.

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