What’s the future of St. Pete’s downtown waterfront? City leaders ask for answers

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The drubbing that city leaders took at the polls over the failed $50 million Lens development project was not far from the minds of organizers of the first Downtown Waterfront Master Plan meeting Monday.

“No one will sleep again when it comes to your invaluable input [about] the waterfront,” Mayor Bill Foster pledged to the 250 residents who showed up for the kickoff planning meeting, held at the USF St. Pete Student Center. The primary goal Monday night was to collect public views about seven miles of downtown waterfront. 

Foster told the crowd that the big turnout was due in large part to the controversial Lens project, which the Council had supported but voters defeated by a wide margin.

“If we had not walked through the valley together,” there would not be this level of interest in the early stages of creating a Downtown Waterfront Master Plan., Foster suggested to the crowd.

The plan will serve as a blueprint for future downtown development and preservation.

As mayoral challenger Rick Kriseman stood at the back of the ballroom, Foster – running for his second term in office – opened the meeting by telling residents: “This is your city, your waterfront. Every dollar we spend belongs to you.”

The crowd of mostly older residents was largely quiet as Foster talked about the importance of creating an “umbrella policy document” through the master plan process.

Other City Council members also showed up for the meeting, including Charlie Gerdes, Leslie Curran, Jeff Danner, Bill Dudley and Steve Kornell.

Sophia T. Wisniewska, the new regional chancellor, briefly welcomed residents to the ballroom at the USF St. Pete Student Center. She described  the college as the “intellectual anchor” in downtown St. Petersburg.

She urged city leaders to “protect and enhance” the chain of parks and green space that have come to define the city’s downtown.

“Just think of the vision and planning that that took,” Wisniewska said.

Monday night’s meeting was not like most municipal public hearings. Instead of people standing before a microphone to make brief speeches, they were asked to fill out a pair of extensive surveys. The surveys asked what they like and wish could be improved in the downtown waterfront area.

The approach caught resident Donna Talbert by surprise. After filling out a portion of the long survey, she said that she did not have the two hours required to get the work done.

Talbert said she came out to the meeting after feeling disappointed about how city leaders had pushed the $50 million Lens project without addressing fundamental infrastructure needs for the city’s future.

Talbert is interested in seeing water transportation as a component of the master plan. She would like to see moorings in the area of the Pier, as well as accommodates for a ferry and hyrdrfoil. She also questioned why Tropicana Field is not included in the downtown waterfront master plan process. “Everything is interconnected here,” Talbert said.

Just one table away from Talbert was a group of men who focused on another aspect of the city’s downtown – its lauded chain of waterfront parks and green spaces. They want to see them preserved.

Phil Stager said that upkeep of the parks is not what it was, as the budget has been cut drastically over the past few years. The men have a special interest in the Gizella Gopsick Palm Arboretum, where some rare palms grow.

Tom St. Peter said: “We are concerned about our parks and how downtown development is creeping closer to them. It is beginning to look like a concrete jungle.”

Other residents were just as candid in their views about the city’s downtown. “We all care about the parks and public access,” said resident Thaddeus Root. “But we also want to grow and refine the downtown. Added Tom Stover: “There are too many speeches here tonight. We won’t have enough time to get our work done and reach decisions.”

Indeed the lengthy questionnaires asked people to rate characteristics they like about downtown, ranging from “place of vistas” to “water sports and recreation center.” They also were asked what they like most and least about the existing downtown, and what changes they would make. Residents were asked to fill out questionnaires individually and in small groups.

The results will be synthesized by planners from the Urban Land Institute who soon will visit St. Pete to collect more information and offer recommendations for the blueprint.

Said Dave Goodwin, the city’s director of planning and development: The planners will offer a “fresh perspective” that residents who see the downtown everyday may lack.