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Phil Graham talks Demens Landing, importance of advocacy for waterfront parks

Brian Hartz



Press the play triangle above to watch the full interview.

St. Petersburg’s postcard-perfect waterfront parks and greenspace weren’t always as magnificent as they are today, according to Waterfront Parks Foundation President Phil Graham.

“In the ‘80s, [the parks] were quite extraordinary,” he said in an interview in the Catalyst studio. “There were flowers everywhere. That all declined through the years but that’s back with the help of our donors.”

Graham is a fourth-generation St. Petersburger and recalls playing in city parks every day after school. “That was my playground,” he said.

But during the recession that began in 2008, park maintenance funds were depleted, causing Graham’s beloved spaces to look “pretty shabby, but through no fault of the city — they just didn’t have the funds.”

The decline prompted Graham and a few other concerned residents to form the Waterfront Parks Foundation in 2012. “At that time, there was a lot of pressure [to develop the parks],” he said. Doing so would have greatly “degraded the greenspace and parkland.”

Today, Graham and his foundation are involved in negotiations over the future of Demens Landing, one of the city’s most popular waterfront parks. Safe Harbor Development, a Knoxville, Tenn.-based company, has proposed to redevelop the St. Petersburg Municipal Marina, which borders Demens Landing. SHD’s original plan called for a reduction in greenspace to allow for up to 400 parking spaces at the site, a vast increase over the 280 that already exist.

Graham spoke out last week when he and the foundation felt that their position on the marina proposal had been misrepresented by the Catalyst and Mayor Rick Kriseman. WPF, he clarified, has not approved the marina plan. In fact, it takes no position on most of the elements of SHD’s proposal, instead focusing on just the portion that pertains to Demens Landing parkland and green space.

“Our focus is and has always been to deal with the parkland portion of [Safe Harbor Development’s] plan,” Graham told the Catalyst. “The parkland portion really is Demens Landing. In the initial plan that they presented to the city, there was a swath of parkland that was relocated. It was dug into on the north side and parking was put there, and they moved some greenspace over to the marina side. This was really quite unacceptable to the Waterfront Parks Foundation and should be to the rest of the city.

“So we spoke up, and after that we were in correspondence and dialogue with Safe Harbor and the city. We had several meetings and went through several iterations of plans to mitigate the negative impact on Demens Landing. We got up to Concept D, the latest iteration, which satisfied most of our concerns. We never dealt with the marina at all. It was not part of our scope, not part of our interest. We did not opine on the marina itself. Our focus really is the parkland.”

Graham said that SHD and the city must meet multiple conditions, such as removing the parking circle at the eastern end of Demens Landing and filling that area with greenspace, before it will be OK with the redevelopment. The group is also asking for a new survey — the one used by SHD, Graham said, was done in 1977 — and a color-coded parking plan that details exactly which spaces will be open to the public and which will be reserved for marina users.

However, he said, “there is no approval by us until those conditions are met, and that’s going to be probably months from now, because there’s a lot of work to be done.”

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  1. Avatar

    Charlaine Ralston

    May 5, 2021at6:28 pm

    Mr. Graham, and group, are absolutely right on their insistence that the green space at Demen’s Landing be preserved. I went thru each page of the published plotted proposal and, as a 55 year resident of St. Pete, had the same objection to the change of the green space. Preserve our parklands……always!

  2. Avatar

    Debi Mazor

    May 6, 2021at9:13 am

    Thank you Catalyst and Joe Hamilton for your 5/5/2021 interview with Phil Graham, President of the Downtown Waterfront Parks Foundation, clarifying the “agreement” between the proposed lessee of the City’s Municipal Marina, and the Foundation as reported in the Catalyst article published on 4/30/21. Mr. Graham corrected the article by stating the purported agreement had not been concluded between “the parties” (the City is allowing the Foundation to negotiate the terms of the proposed lease in respect to its affect on Demens Landing Park) and could be several months off in doing so. Surprisingly, the original proponent of the private-public partnership with Safe Harbor Development LLC—the Mayor, is similarly misinformed about some of the consequences of the City’s pending lease (to be voted on by Council on 5/20/2020) with Tennessee developer Darby Campbell’s company Safe Harbor Development LLC or “SHD,” [NB, the confusingly similar name to company that operates 100’s of marinas across the country, including the Harborage near downtown St Pete. The internationally known “Safe Harbor Inc” was acquired in a $1.2B deal on 9/29/2020 by Sun Inc and now calls its marinas “Sun Communities Marinas.” Not to be missed by anyone concerned about the public‘s ongoing confusion between the two formerly named marina operators, SHD applied on that same date 9:29/2020, for trademark with name “Sun Life Marinas” under which it now operates its 12 freshwater marinas in Tennessee, Georgia and Buffalo, NY.]

    But the main reason I am writing this comment is to inform anyone interested in the fate of Demens Landing Park—and may be unaware of the amusement parks situated on or next to Darby Campbell’s other marinas and properties,—that as part of the up coming changes, the maintenance of Demens Landing Park is being ceded by the St Pete Parks and Recreation to another company; and here I shudder to imagine (judging by his drawings of the fanciful pediments to the 1st Ave S entrance to the Park ) in the no too distant future we will have a Ferris Wheel smack dab in the middle of Demens Landing Park!

  3. Avatar

    Elizabeth Lay

    May 9, 2021at4:22 pm

    Thank you Mr. Graham and the Waterfront Parks Foundation for all you have done to protect the waterfront parks. I appreciate that you are correcting the record on your support for Safe Harbor’s proposal, but I wish you would take a position on more than just the green space at Demens.

    The proposed layout of the Central Basin eliminates forever views of the basin and out to Tampa Bay — from Bayshore, South Straub Park and from the Pier. This congested plan does away with the existing open water in the Central Basin and fills it in with new docks. This open water is currently enjoyed by people on land enjoying the views and by people on all kinds of watercraft: kayaks, SUPs, jet skis and small boats approaching Frescos Restaurant. The views from our parks would further be ruined as superyachts up to 130 feet long and multiple stories high will be docked in the marina, in areas where there is currently open water. The Safe Harbors plan shows 11 new berths in the Central Basin that can accommodate boats from 80 feet to 130 feet. For scale reference, the Cross Bay Ferry, currently docked along Bayshore close to the Vinoy, is 98 feet long.

    The St. Petersburg waterfront parks are a unique asset. It would be a shame to see the waterfront views you have worked so successfully to protect, destroyed permanently.

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