Some four years after developer Joe Furst started thinking about opportunities in the 22nd Street South corridor in south St. Petersburg, he’s asking for public input on a plan to revitalize the area.
Furst, founder and managing principal of Place Projects, is working with local community groups on an initiative to rezone the area, creating the potential for new uses, including offices and residential uses, on what is now mostly vacant land along 22nd Street between 1st Avenue and 6th Avenue South.
He wants to open up a community conversation on the proposal, which is still nearly a year away from any potential vote in the St. Petersburg City Council.
A newly established project website, 22imix.com, is an information portal and community engagement tool, Furst said.
“My goal is building consensus. To me, communicating and transparency is the most important part of any planning or rezoning initiative,” he said.
At least one local business owner said that communication is key. Kara Behar, owner of The Factory, St. Pete, wants to ensure the plan takes into account the historical and cultural significance of 22nd Street South. Behar, whose husband owns Behar+Peteranecz: Architecture, wants to ensure the preservation of this historically Black neighborhood in St. Pete is taken into consideration.
‘Something is broken’
One of Place Projects’ best-known initiatives is the Wynwood District in Miami, a trendy area known for colorful murals and converted warehouses housing craft breweries and art galleries.
When Furst initially came to St. Petersburg four years ago looking for development opportunities, he was immediately drawn to the Warehouse Arts District, which reminded him of Wynwood.
He couldn’t find development opportunities at that time, so he focused on other areas of St. Petersburg. Working with Tricera Capital, Place acquired and developed properties downtown, including working with Maple Street Biscuit Co. in the 600 block of Central Ave.
But the possibilities of the area along 22nd Street South stuck with him, because it is the convergence of several neighborhoods.
“You have a vibrant core in the Grand Central District along Central Avenue. You have a ton of amazing arts and culture-related uses in the Warehouse Arts District. And you have the South St. Pete Deuces Live Main Street further south, where there are great things happening, but they want to continue economic development and success there,” Furst said.
The connector between those areas is 22nd Street South between 1st Avenue and 6th Avenue South, he said. “There’s a swath of industrial zoning that occupies that stretch of real estate and when you see the vacant parcels and lack of development, it’s clear something is broken there,” he said.
Since August 2018, Place Project has acquired about seven acres of mostly vacant land in the 22nd Street South corridor.
Since then, Furst has been talking with community groups, including Deuces Live Main Street Association and the Warehouse Arts District Association, about the proposed rezoning plan.
Under the current zoning code, the most economically viable projects are not allowed, Furst said.
“Under existing industrial zoning, you can’t have office as a primary use, you can’t have retail as a primary use. You can have some maker spaces or arts-related spaces, but generally if you’re trying to create economic viability for those vacant parcels, the uses available to us in the modern economy, most of those are precluded by the industrial zoning,” Furst said.
He would like to see a proposed new zoning classification, industrial mixed-use or I-MIX, which would preserve the industrial character of the area while allowing for increased intensity.
If city officials approve the new zoning, new construction in the area could have light industrial uses, such as maker spaces, galleries and breweries, on first-floor levels, with commercial office space and residential uses on upper floors. There would be a wide range of price points for the housing, helping meet city goals to create more attainable housing.
One of the parcels Place Projects owns abuts the Pinellas Trail, which Furst hopes to highlight as part of any future development.
“The Pinellas Trail is an under-used and under-appreciated element that runs through the county. If you look at other rails-to-trails initiatives in other places in the country, you typically see a lot more engagement on those trails with more development of sites along the trail. To me, it’s a huge attribute I hope we can celebrate with the work we’re doing.”
The SunRunner, the Bus Rapid Transit Project that will run along 1st Avenue South, also is a huge asset and part of Place Projects’ policy rationale, Furst said.
As a business owner and property owner in the Warehouse Arts District, Behar said she understands the benefits of the proposed development. But she also feels a moral obligation to advocate for the community and to use her voice to make sure the important conversations around gentrification are had.
“Given the historical and cultural significance of 22nd Street, it is important to recognize and ask how the city and private developers are coming together to both improve the area for the greater community at large and also make reparations for past actions, so that the Deuces Live/22nd Street remains a key part of the south St. Petersburg community and retains its cultural identity,” Behar said.
Furst said he has spent time getting up to speed on the history of the community.
“If you think about what actually exists between 1st Avenue South and 6th Avenue South, it’s a brewery, Brick Street Farms, which are adaptions of warehouses, but it’s primarily vacant land. And when you think about the goals of the Deuces and the Warehouse Arts District, they’ve all been about fostering growth through pedestrian viability and becoming more effectively accessible for pedestrians and visitors,” Furst said.
“When you have a large area of land in the middle of those neighborhoods that’s vacant land and has no ability for development or no economic viability because of the underlying zoning, that’s a problem that needs to be addressed. So this is far different from what most people consider a typical gentrification project where there are single family homes or low-rise apartment building that have some form of mixed-use zoning but don’t have additional intensity, where someone wants to come in and create additional intensity, to raze what’s existing and build something new.
“What we are trying to do is act as a catalyst to bridge the neighborhoods and if you look at the area in the proposal, there is not a single residential person that would be displaced from the area,” Furst said.
Parallel process with Vision 2050
Any zoning changes are months away. The city is currently getting input for potential comprehensive plan changes and zoning amendments under its Vision 2050 process, and Furst sees the I-MIX proposal running in parallel with that process.
He doesn’t expect the plan and any zoning changes to come before the St. Petersburg City Council until the second quarter of 2021.
“From today until then we have two main goals. The first is workshopping more specific details as to what we want this code to allow and prohibit, and we’ll be doing that thru workshops with Deuces and Warehouse Arts District and other key stakeholders involved,” he said.
“At the same time, we want to cast a wide web for public engagement. The rationale for what I do is to make community-centric projects and plans, and to do that you need people to engage and give you their opinions, good bad or indifferent, so you can appropriately structure and build a framework for the future growth of that area.”