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Maintaining a sense of place

Jason Mathis

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Jason Mathis is the CEO of the Downtown Partnership, a private nonprofit urban development organization with a mission to champion community prosperity through purposeful, transformative projects.
 

It’s a classic urban development challenge.

A once-blighted neighborhood attracts artists, breweries and innovative entrepreneurs looking for cheap rent. The energy that is generated from a concentration of hip and creative folks attracts increasingly upscale businesses like restaurants, galleries, boutiques and high-end housing. Eventually, rents rise, and many of the quirky businesses who helped to make the neighborhood attractive in the first place get priced out. This natural evolution is happening every day in cities across America. It’s happening here in St. Pete too.  

It’s impossible to completely curtail natural market forces. And we shouldn’t try to intervene in the private market without a legitimate, public interest. People want to live, work, shop and play where other people are already congregating. It’s part of our biology. And areas of our city, like Beach Drive and Central Avenue, will continue to attract foot traffic because they are vibrant urban neighborhoods. The law of supply and demand state that when more people all want something that is a limited commodity, prices will naturally go up.  

The very qualities that make these streets desirable also threaten their long-term aesthetic and charm. We all have an interest in maintaining the unique, local elements that help give Beach Drive and Central Avenue their special character. In many ways, the distinctive elements of these pedestrian-friendly thoroughfares are the goose that is laying the golden egg for development projects being proposed or built on adjacent parcels of land and nearby blocks. If these neighborhoods are built out with large-scale national retailers, or become overrun with ubiquitous chains, much of the local flavor will be lost. Our urban center will be worse for it. And the development dollars that are coming to these neighborhoods will flow to other places and other communities.

The Downtown Partnership supports the Storefront Conservation Corridor Overlay Zone proposed by Mayor Kriseman’s administration because it strikes the right balance between allowing for natural market forces to continue to invent, creating new and exciting destination along these beloved streets, while preserving much of the scale-able infrastructure that makes these places appealing. No law is ever perfect, so we also recognize that there may be additional tweaks that can make this zone work better for property owners while preserving the unique vibe of our urban center.  

The Overlay Zone attempts to preserve a deliberate mix of small, medium and large storefronts along Beach Drive and Central Avenue going west all the way to 31st Street. It doesn’t specify the kinds of businesses that can take up residence in these spaces, allowing the market to make those determinations as brick and mortar retail, shopping trends and consumer taste continue to evolve. It also allows for a variance process where owners could ask the city for allowances in individual circumstances, as the needs of specific owners and individual parcels change over time. The zone sets a standard for what these streets may feel like, but it doesn’t dictate the kinds of businesses and retains flexibility for future needs.

This is not a perfect solution to preserving the vibe of this distinct streets. But it’s a balanced and thoughtful approach that takes into account more than two years of research and conversations with impacted property owners.

Passing the Overlay Zone will not be the end of the story. As a city we will always be evolving, which means the need to clarify, improve and edit the approach over time as needs and resources change. Anytime the public sector intervenes in the private market there are unintended consequences, and we encourage the city to continue to work with property owners to continue to refine and improve this zone, recognizing that everyone benefits from a vibrant, successful and authentic urban center.  

Moving forward we hope the city will continue to refine signage ordinances for the corridors to ensure that property owners have flexibility in maintaining their unique identities. The distinct elements of each storefront contribute to the creative feeling we hope to preserve. We also encourage the city to address unique challenges that may come from the parcel depths that are not uniform.  

We also recommend that the city identify increased property tax revenues that will be generated in these neighborhoods, and apply this new revenue to additional incentive programs that reward property owners and small businesses who are contributing to the unique community feel. As the Red Apple Development moves forward, the new Kolter Development begins permitting for 300 First Street South, the former police station get redeveloped, surface parking lots are repurposed and vacant buildings get remodeled and reused, property values and local tax revenue will continue to rise. It would help to support the virtuous cycle of redevelopment on these important streets if policy makers re-deployed a portion of this new revenue to maintaining the sense of place these streets represent.  

Many communities are struggling with a lack of retail and a loss of population. Because of past and present leadership, St. Pete is in an enviable growth position. People want to live, shop and dine in this incredible place. It is important that public and private sector leaders continue to work together to ensure that as we continue to grow, we work to preserve the things that make us special.

More information about St. Pete Downtown Partnership can be found at stpetepartnership.org

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