The latest rendition of proposed changes to I-275 enhance safety and accommodate the projected demands of population growth in Pinellas County. They include lane continuity improvements, road widening, and the addition of express lanes in multiple segments from south of 54th Avenue South to north of 4th Street North, intended to reduce congestion.
But an unintended consequence of those improvements could mean another setback for the Deuces Live Historic Main Street and the Commerce Park site.
The Florida Department of Transportation presented the changes to interested and affected Pinellas County residents in a public hearing Tuesday evening at First Baptist Church, off of Gandy Blvd and I-275 in St. Petersburg.
The proposed changes would widen the interstate significantly, increasing the impervious surface and requiring multiple storm water management ponds at various points along the interstate. In total, 28 parcels and 16 residential relocations are expected through right-of-way acquisition. One of those parcels, which will make way way for a retention pond, is planned for the corner of 7th Avenue South and 22nd Street, in the heart of the Deuces and adjacent to the Commerce Park site. The site and the Deuces Live Main Street have been deemed a priority for the City of St. Petersburg’s revitalization efforts.
When the I-275 expansion of I-75 first came to Pinellas County in the early ’70s, the interstate effectively crippled the historic African American-owned business district, located on 22nd Street South, dividing it from the rest of downtown. In the last decade, the City of St. Petersburg has sought to encourage economic development in the area, providing Penny for Pinellas and Capital Improvement funds for the Deuces Live to beautify and improve the 1-275 overpass that bisects the historic main street.
According to Deuces Live Program Manager Veatrice Farrell, from 2015-2017, the City of St. Petersburg spent nearly $800,000 to improve lighting and landscaping, and create a safe, walkable “gateway” to the Deuces. The intention of the project was to create a more seamless relationship between businesses north of the I-275 overpass, and those south of the overpass.
“The consensus during our general board meeting was fierce opposition to the pond proposal,” Farrell told FDOT officials at Tuesday’s public hearing. Farrell emphasized the “fierce opposition” of board members and business owners in the Deuces multiple times, pointing out that such a project could thwart economic development efforts that have been hard fought in the area, including the ongoing saga of Commerce Park.
The Commerce Park project site is located between 22nd and 26th Streets South, and 6th Avenue South to Interstate 275. The project has been in limbo since both parties that entered into a lease and development agreement for the vacant land last year defaulted on the agreement. The site has long been promised to bring jobs and prosperity to the area.
FDOT has not yet finalized plans, and explained that pond could be reduced or eliminated based on environmental studies and formalized agreements. FDOT officials also said they were in talks with the City of St. Petersburg as to the most appropriate locations for the storm water management ponds.
Improvements to I-275 between 54th Avenue South and I-175 will primarily serve to create greater lane continuity in each direction. Due to numerous left exit and entrance ramps on the strip, there are no continuous travel lanes in the southbound direction of 1-275 and just one continuous lane in the northbound direction. Requiring drivers to change lanes and weave between entering and exiting traffic has been a major cause of congestion.
Between I-375 and Gandy Boulevard, and Gandy Boulevard to north of 4th Street North, the design change re-evaluation plans will widen the interstate from the existing three general use lanes and one auxiliary lane to two express (or toll) lanes, three general use lanes and one auxiliary lane in each direction, vastly increasing the road’s capacity.
Plans are expected to be finalized in winter 2019/2020, right-of-way land acquisitions are scheduled for 2022, and design and build phases are scheduled for 2024.