More than $8 billion in public and private investment is expected in downtown St. Petersburg over the next decade, according to the St. Petersburg Downtown Partnership.
Downtown is already in the midst of a transformative change, and projects ranging from the redevelopment of Tropicana Field to new offices, homes and hotels will continue to change the downtown landscape, said Jason Mathis, CEO of the Downtown Partnership.
“There’s an idea about a tipping point and once you reach that tipping point everything starts to happen on a much larger, more rapid scale. I think St. Pete has hit that tipping point. We’re at a point where development is going to happen,” Mathis said at the organization’s Development Council meeting Wednesday.
He said the Downtown Partnership is trying to balance development and preservation. “It’s up to us to try to manage that development, and be thoughtful about that development, and make sure that the public sector and private sector are working together to reinforce the foundation that has already been laid in St. Pete.”
At the meeting, the Partnership unveiled its new 40-page Downtown St. Pete Development Guide, a comprehensive overview of the state of downtown.
“The guide is an attempt to try to catalogue where we are at this moment, what we’re doing right now as a community, and to try to set the stage for what might happen over the next 10 years,” Mathis said.
The guide has dozens of statistics about downtown’s workforce, its office and living spaces, hotels and visitors, and schools and museums. It details projects that are both planned and under construction and highlights two “transformative projects,” the Trop redevelopment and a plan to develop 40 acres in Bayboro Harbor.
‘Booming isn’t a metric’
Downtown St. Petersburg is a great story, said Sarah Lindemuth, a research consultant at Meshsem Inc. in St. Petersburg, and the lead researcher on the Partnership guide.
What was missing was the data to go along with the story, she said.
“How many times have you heard downtown St. Pete is booming? What does booming mean? It isn’t a metric. You can’t quantify it. So that’s where we started. We realized there’s a story here but we need to do better. We need to give developers something they can understand and wrap their hands around,” she said.
Among the numbers she highlighted were:
• A 7.1 percent vacancy rate in commercial office space in the central business district (It’s declined since the guide went to press)
• A 65 percent increase in downtown residential growth
• A 52 percent increase in downtown hotel rooms
• More than $230 million in downtown retail sales
The numbers reflect partnerships between public and private interests, Mayor Rick Kriseman told the approximately 150 Downtown Partnership members at the Development Council meeting. Collaborative work between the Downtown Partnership, the St. Petersburg Area Chamber of Commerce, the St. Petersburg Area Economic Development Corp, the City and Pinellas County have taken economic development to the next level, Kriseman said.
During the meeting, a member of the Development Council and a relative newcomer to the area asked Mathis, who has been in St. Petersburg for about 15 months, about balancing development with the atmosphere and experience that draws people to St. Petersburg.
It’s a fundamental question, Mathis said.
“Growth is going to happen. We’ve crossed that tipping point. People have discovered this magical place and want to move here, want to invest here, want to grow their businesses here. One of the things we all need to think about is how do we maintain that,” he said.
The Storefront Conservation Corridor Overlay, a plan designed to protect independent businesses downtown, is one way the city is working to preserve the pedestrian corridor along Central Avenue and Beach Drive, Mathis said.
Related story: Maintaining a sense of place
The Partnership’s Development Council also is tackling the challenge.
“One reason we started the Development Council was I was shocked at the anti-growth sentiment that I saw when I came to this community,” Mathis said.
He cited the opposition he heard to ONE St. Petersburg, a 41-story tower with 243 condos and a hotel at 100 1st Ave. N. “So many cities would love to have high-end residential development for the density and tax value it brings,” Mathis said.
The Downtown Partnership is trying to straddle the line. “We’re not for development just for the sake of development. We’re for smart development. We’re not for preservation just for the sake of preservation. We’re for smart preservation. I think we’re trying to say how do we grow and manage that growth in a way that preserves the things that make this place so special, even as we change.”
St. Petersburg can learn from other communities’ success and mistakes, but in the end St. Petersburg is unique, Mathis said.
“That authenticity will be so important to reinforce and to keep as part of the fabric of the community. It’s the reason we all love it. That’s a big part of our mission as an organization, to remind people about what makes this place special … It’s a responsibility we should all take seriously, to say how are we going to make sure that we maintain the specialness of this place.”