A plethora of shops and restaurants continue attracting people to downtown St. Petersburg, increasing the need for more condominiums and other establishments; the ensuing construction, however, impedes access for residents and visitors.
Scaffolding and barriers rerouting sidewalks and bike lanes across busy thoroughfares present a safety hazard, as does the potential for falling debris. Conversely, residents and visitors have new places to frequent and live, and business owners see their potential customer base expand once the dust clears.
That cycle is an ongoing source of growing pains for a booming St. Pete, and stakeholders are actively searching for mitigation strategies. The St. Petersburg Downtown Partnership brought several city officials, developers and construction leaders together Tuesday at Parkshore Grill on Beach Drive to discuss the myriad issues and brainstorm solutions.
Mickey Paleologos, owner of Mickey’s Café & Organics, said construction on either side of his downtown Central Avenue business has “a huge impact” on his livelihood.
“My sales have gone down at least 30 to 40 percent,” Paleologos told the crowd. “All the other businesses around me have been affected by this. So, what do we do?”
He added that barricades and disruptions impede foot traffic and increase parking challenges. “People don’t want to come downtown because of the problem,” Paleologos said.
Central Avenue is abuzz with new construction, from the Edge to District east to 1st Street. Entire blocks of sidewalk are gone in some areas, eliminating opportunities for pedestrians to stop in a local small business in the city’s economic hub.
Speakers at Tuesday afternoon’s meeting noted the challenge presented by a preponderance of cyclists and walkers merging with a constant influx of vehicular traffic. The likelihood of accidents increases when people – especially late-night revelers – ignore detours and walk in the road to circumvent blocked sidewalks.
Sometimes it’s not their fault. Evan Mory, director of transportation and parking, highlighted several recent photos that showed overturned or relocated detour signs and barriers.
He explained how in some instances, there were no suitable alternatives; construction sites blocked all opportunities to advance via sidewalks or crosswalks.
“I’m an able-body person that will take some risks, and so I was just walking around it,” Mory said. “But imagine if you were somebody in a wheelchair or you had a visual impairment; this could get really bad.”
Brejesh Prayman, engineering and capital improvement director, explained how city officials attempt to conduct a “symphony” of operations along busy roads. They must ensure emergency and delivery vehicles can reach existing businesses and patrons while accommodating new growth.
Adding to the challenges are weekly city and community events, and projects that are behind schedule. Those factors create a “very small window to get things done.”
“It is an intricate dance,” Prayman added. “It’s a ripple effect once we pull that trigger, and how we move forward.”
Mory showed attendees a “really bad” example of construction impeding access around the 400 Central development. He said, ironically, an ongoing Department of Transportation (DOT) project to improve walkability in the area is contributing to the disorder.
He relayed that city officials requested funding for the project eight years ago. It now coincides with construction on the Gulf Coast’s tallest residential tower, and they can’t ask their counterparts at the DOT to wait another two years until that is complete.
“So, sometimes you live with just a lot going on,” Mory said. “And there’s a ton going on in St. Pete right now.”
Elizabeth Abernethy, director of planning and development services, said city administrators recognized the city was on the cusp of a significant growth spurt in 2018. They began requiring developers to submit a Construction Action Plan (CAP) in December 2019.
She explained that multiple agencies review the process and negotiate terms with applicants to minimize disruptions to pedestrians and bicyclists. However, downtown construction sites are typically small, and cranes must have room to spin around.
While some contractors implement covered walkways, Abernethy said the temporary structures would not stop tools or debris falling from a high rise. Retrofitting shipping containers is a potential alternative, although Mory said those present lighting, emergency access and other safety issues.
Prayman said that administrators will release new building guidelines in June as part of the updated CAP.
A contractor representative who is also a resident stated that she would rather avoid construction areas than deal with the headache. That is a common sentiment, and Jason Mathis, president of the Partnership, asked if the city council could implement impact fees to offset those losses.
Councilmember Copley Gerdes noted that several variables contribute to sales fluctuations, diminishing the likelihood that city officials could create a new fund directly supporting business owners. However, the various stakeholders did reach a consensus on one solution – bolstering marketing and signage efforts.