An initiative to implement a special assessment district in downtown St. Petersburg is gaining traction. It would fund improvements and provide cleanliness and safety programs.
Jason Mathis, CEO of the St. Petersburg Downtown Partnership, has recently ramped up efforts to gather community feedback and formulate a framework. However, he stressed at Tuesday’s Developers Council meeting that his organization is acting on behalf of residents and business owners.
Mathis said downtown stakeholders expressed concerns over increasing vagrancy issues, graffiti and safety around Williams Park. He also noted that Tampa, “and virtually every other city,” has a tool to address those challenges.
“We do think there’s a place for clean and safe programs,” Mathis said. “We do think there’s a place to help intervene with people experiencing homelessness. This is an effort to say, ‘Let’s make downtown clean and safe for everyone, regardless of your housing status.’”
He explained that a special assessment differs from a tax, which goes into a general fund and supports citywide initiatives. The Partnership proposes a $1 fee per $1,000 of taxable property value to yield about $2 million annually.
The district would extend from the waterfront east to 5th Street, between 5th Avenue North and South. Money collected would go to area improvements.
Under the Partnership’s plan, a separate not-for-profit organization would manage the funds and feature a 12 to 20-person governing board comprised of property owners. While downtowns are typically more commercial, Mathis said the district’s property value is split nearly evenly between businesses and residences.
“Most condo owners in downtown St. Pete are successful folks who understand the importance of reinvesting and maintenance,” he added. “If you look at the trajectory that some other large cities have been on over the past few years, I think there was a sense that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.
“And maybe making some investments now to prevent a tent city from popping up someplace downtown makes some sense.”
Mathis elaborated that the funding could provide additional resources to help unsheltered residents receive much-needed service. He noted that many are also concerned with safety because they lack a secure place to sleep and store possessions.
Mathis said revenue could fund 24-hour security in Williams Park and the downtown waterfront’s extensive greenspaces. He also stressed that property owners and city officials ultimately decide the initiative’s fate.
He expects the city council to begin discussing the matter in the fall. Councilmember Ed Montanari agreed with that timeline.
Mathis explained that the district would encompass both sides of 5th Avenue North to include the Vinoy and adjacent condo buildings. He said the resort’s leadership and residents are “really interested” in participating.
He noted that executives with Red Apple Group – the developers behind 400 Central, which will soon become the Gulf Coast’s tallest residential building – “have been really involved this whole time.”
“Because they see Williams Park as a natural amenity for what’s going on at 400 Central, and they think this is a way to help improve that,” Mathis added. “So, they really insisted that they wanted to be a part of it.”
The city’s parks department is one of the first groups the Partnership met with, and Mathis said they would continue overseeing daily operations. He said the initiative would go “above and beyond” routine upkeep, mitigate funding gaps and provide security and concierge services.
Mathis said the governing board would work closely with the Waterfront Parks Foundation, the Downtown Neighborhood Foundation and nonprofits that address homelessness. A city contract could mandate additional trash collection or event hosting, “but it’s all still to be determined.”
If the city council moves the project forward, they will notify affected property owners. Over 50% would have to agree to the special assessment.
“I think it’s a good conversation for our community to have,” Montanari said. “I think this is a great opportunity to focus on our downtown and make sure that it’s a great place for everybody to come and enjoy – both residents and visitors to our city.”
While he noted that much work remains, particularly around legalities and codified waterfront park protections, Montanari believes it’s “doable.”
Developer Mack Feldman said city officials have limited funding and many priorities, and a district hotline could provide a more responsive resource for concerned stakeholders. Mathis illustrated the need by comparing St. Petersburg’s downtown with an expensive new car.
“You get it tuned up; you get maintenance done; you get it washed all the time,” he added. “Our downtown is vibrant, dynamic and thriving. It’s really about how do we invest in our urban center to make sure it stays that way.”
The Partnership has launched a website dedicated to the initiative. Visit the link here.