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Green space & Complete Neighborhoods: What St. Pete can learn in recovery

Megan Holmes

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As St. Pete moves toward reopening and eventual recovery, it is important for local leaders to recognize that recovery should not mean restoration of the status quo. Instead, it should force innovation with a transition to better, more sustainable practices for the future.

These changes can and should occur in multiple layers of society, from our local city planning and zoning ordinances, to our infrastructure priorities, to our green space, transportation options and food systems.

Crises that cities were already facing prior to the pandemic have been further illuminated: lack of housing affordability and homelessness; long-neglected, ailing infrastructure; preventable diseases tied to car-dependent cities and food deserts; climate change.

Cities across the world are making changes to combat these crises, as well as the pandemic, allowing more space for social distancing and the changing demands of the world ahead.

What can St. Pete learn from this crisis and these cities – as well as its own leaders – about how to move forward? In part one of this series, we’ll focus primarily on planning and zoning, and green space.

 

Embracing the great outdoors

Cities from Tampa to Bogota to Oakland are embracing outdoor space – and they’re giving it back to people instead of vehicles. In Tampa, a plan to do away with parking and instead add socially distanced outdoor seating to restaurants along certain corridors of the city has won applause from both sides of the bay.

St. Pete has been less quick to act, surveying business owners and allowing temporary permits for restaurants to use their privately owned parking lots or adjacent green spaces, rather than closing on-street parking spaces.

In Bogota, a 120-kilometer network of streets turned over to bicycles one day per week, known as Ciclovía, has been extended to every day of the week. The city then opened 117 more kilometers of temporary street space for bikes and pedestrians by taking away excess car lanes. Berlin, Denver, Minneapolis, Montreal, Portland, Oakland and Winnipeg have all followed suit.

“Oakland Slow Streets” transformed a full 10 percent of the city’s streets into pedestrian and bicycle only, following city-approved and previously established neighborhood bike routes. The streets still allow slow local traffic and emergency vehicles, but no through traffic. If it can be done in Oakland, can it be done in St. Pete, too?

Rather than creating more space for pedestrians and bicyclists, Mayor Rick Kriseman has warned against congregating in parks and worries that expanding street access to pedestrians could create more places for gathering, instead of more safe space for recreation and commuting.

“There are no immediate plans to close down streets for pedestrian or cycling use during this public health crisis,” said Benjamin Kirby, the mayor’s communications director. “We are fortunate in St. Pete, even as an urban city, to have an abundance of places to walk, jog, and ride.

“Mayor Kriseman has indicated, however, that he would like to test out the idea during some future weekends, when gatherings are less of a concern and when restaurants and retailers can receive plenty of notice and participate in making such weekends a success.”

While St. Pete is home to abundant green space, it is also part of the Tampa Bay region, which is ranked the ninth most dangerous metro area for walking in the United States, according to ye website Smart Growth America.

 

Changing zoning restrictions and encouraging Complete Neighborhoods

As shelter-in-place and safer-at-home orders dominated the lives of Americans, and forced many to work from home, it brought one essential fact to the forefront: St. Pete residents live in what are already functionally mixed-use neighborhoods, which are essentially outlawed in many areas of St. Pete.

Covid-19 has brought with it questions about the feasibility of large offices, and thrown what may be a deathly blow to Euclidian zoning, the idea that specified geographic districts should have single, segregated land uses (such as agricultural, residential, commercial, industrial, institutional, et cetera).

As St. Petersburg City Council member Darden Rice wrote in her Community Voices piece last year, the current crisis of affordability should point the City toward Complete Neighborhoods. “The idea behind Complete Neighborhoods,” Rice wrote, “is to plan our neighborhoods so that everything is walkable, generally within 10 minutes.”

Paris has led the way on these Complete Neighborhoods, calling them “15-minute neighborhoods.” Melbourne and Vancouver have followed suit. Could St. Pete join these ranks?

With current zoning restrictions, St. Pete residents who need daily essential goods must travel to big box stores located in commercial zones throughout the City, exacerbating the problem of food deserts as public transportation routes have slowed or halted entirely.

As an alternative, neighborhood-scale commercial businesses like small grocery stores, pharmacies, hair salons, artist studios, small professional offices and other quintessentially neighborhood-focused businesses could exist within 10 minutes walking distance f0r neighbors.

Cities could look to legalize these neighborhoods, to incentivize and encourage these neighborhoods to become more than single family homes to live and work from home within. Expanded measures to allow “smart density” like accessory dwelling units (also known as mother-in-law suites) or duplex conversions can create more naturally occurring affordable housing and provide increased income for the property owner, who often remains living on the premises, something many will need to avoid foreclosure as unemployment rises.

Complete Neighborhoods reduce the cost of housing, taking demand outside of the downtown core and the few high-priced neighborhoods that already have grandfathered commercial uses, like Old Northeast, Old Southeast or Historic Uptown. They would reduce the cost of transportation, a bill that AAA estimates can surpass $9,000 annually, by allow residents to talk to needed services or place of employment. Finally, it would reduce the cost of businesses, by providing far more (and therefore cheaper) commercial space than is currently available to our many artists, makers and restaurateurs who have been pushed out of the downtown core.

“There should be more opportunities for citizens, rich and poor, to be able to walk to jobs, markets, neighborhood cafes, clothing shops, professional offices, pharmacies and all of their other daily needs without having to pay $9,000 a year to own a car,” Rice wrote.

“On various Future Major Streets, I would like to see the City staff allow for smaller, neighborhood commercial opportunities such as neighborhood cafes, professional offices, neighborhood retail, small fitness businesses and other neighborhood scale uses that serve St. Pete’s neighborhoods.

“Live/work opportunities should definitely be available. If citizens want to work where they live on a busy street, I am all for it … This seems like a no-brainer to me, to provide additional ways for citizens to make extra income.”

 

 

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4 Comments

4 Comments

  1. Avatar

    Mike Manning

    May 12, 2020at3:46 pm

    Love the ideas put forth in this article. Walking streets downtown and complete neighborhoods bring with them a bright and exciting future. Would upscale neighborhoods welcome the complete neighborhood, given a possible reduction in home values?

  2. Avatar

    R R

    May 12, 2020at4:27 pm

    10 minute walks are a little too much in tropical environments. We should be striving for 5 minutes and more late night hours. The climate does not behoove walking 10 minutes at noon in August.

  3. Avatar

    Georgia Earp

    May 12, 2020at7:10 pm

    Since we moved to Historic Kenwood five years ago, two low-income apartment complexes have been built, and property values here continue to increase. Thankfully, the apartment complexes have good management.

  4. Avatar

    R G

    May 13, 2020at7:06 am

    I appreciate this article and completely agree with having complete neighborhoods. It helps create a community and we need that more than ever. I am a small business owner and have definitely experienced the hinderance of the zoning in St Petersburg.

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