City Hall goes on tour
As several department directors noted, Monday evening represented the embodiment of St. Petersburg Mayor Ken Welch’s pledge to make city government more accessible to residents across the city.
Dozens of administrators, first responders and the mayor seemed genuinely happy to work into the night at the Walter Fuller Recreation Center in west St. Pete. The facility was the first of four stops on Welch’s “City Hall on Tour” series.
Instead of preplanned presentations, city officials set up stations throughout the center’s gymnasium, eager to answer residents’ questions and discuss their latest initiatives. Welch manned a corner “Coffee with Ken” section and noted pickleball, historic preservation and zoning changes were among the evening’s hot topics.
“This is how you remain in touch with the citizens in the neighborhood,” Welch said. “Actually coming out into the neighborhood – in this case, the west side of town – at a time when folks can come after work, they can have something to eat and they can talk to any of our departments.”
Welch credited his friend and former Mayor Bill Foster for the idea. He said the event provided an open, non-combative and unintimidating atmosphere where the community could get together and have a potluck dinner.
City officials want to know their constituents’ thoughts, and Welch said you must ask the question and provide an open forum before receiving sincere responses.
“We can tell you if there’s something we can fix now or if it might take us a while to fix,” he added. “Or, if it’s something we just disagree on, at least we can have the conversation.”
Resident Aron Bryce called the event “fantastic.” He believes many people on the city’s west side have felt some of their concerns fell on deaf ears or did not receive much-deserved attention over the years.
The area serving as City Hall on Tour’s first stop “spoke volumes” to Bryce. He said preserving the predominantly single-family home neighborhood’s character and potential zoning changes that could increase density were topics dominating local discourse.
Bryce relayed that his neighbors are looking for answers, and having easy access to the mayor was “huge.”
City council members will hear a second reading Thursday of a Neighborhood Traditional Mixed Residential (NTM-1) zoning ordinance that could allow up to four housing units in some single-family neighborhoods. NTM-1 is currently in place for city parcels with alleys and within 175 feet of high-frequency transit routes – including around SunRunner stations.
Bryce noted that most west St. Pete neighborhoods do not abut alleys and would remain unaffected by the proposed changes.
“That, I think, is maybe a disconnect between a lot of people who are against it and folks who are excited to see increases in density and focusing on affordable housing,” Bryce said. “But I think these types of conversations are good because it helps bridge that disconnect.”
Welch said the people who spoke against the initiative Monday evening feared the “worst-case scenario” that zoning changes would degrade their single-family neighborhoods.
He stressed that his stance as a mayoral candidate in 2021 remains unchanged – the city should not adopt city-wide upzoning. Studies show that boosting density allowances without affordability requirements can increase housing costs, and Welch prefers a deliberate approach to implementation.
“We want to be innovative and focus on the affordable workforce housing part of it,” he added. “While at the same time, taking a very measured step on upzoning through NTM-1.”
The recreation center provides several pickleball courts, and Welch said the local demand is “evident.” He said the city would build additional facilities but must maintain a balance with other sports and ensure funding is available.
Mike Jefferis, leisure services administrator, said the comments he received Monday evening were all positive. One lady thanked him for implementing courts in the gymnasium, and he called the conversations educational.
Jefferis relayed that many residents don’t realize the city offers 55 courts and said neighboring cities like Pinellas Park, Largo and Clearwater need to help “carry the load” to accommodate the sport’s popularity.
Most of all, however, he appreciated the opportunity to engage with constituents outside City Hall and typical business hours.
“This is government in action,” Jefferis said. “It’s one thing for us to hide behind our phones and our email – this gets us out in the community. It really helps us be in touch and have our finger on the pulse.”
The next City Hall on Tour stop is June 14 at the Willis S. Johns Recreation Center from 5:30 until 8 p.m.
March 21, 2023at3:18 pm
This is an absolutely great idea.
Thank you Mayor Welch and City Officials and employees.
March 21, 2023at3:31 pm
This was a extremely well run & well thought ideas.
WE ARE ST PETE😎
Velva Lee Heraty
April 2, 2023at12:33 pm
Well written and clearly articulated. Brought the reader into the experience.