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St. Pete 2.0: Climate, transportation, housing and Trop site top-of-mind as St. Pete grows

Megan Holmes

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The St. Petersburg renaissance has been in full swing for more than a decade. We’ve excelled in many areas and struggled in others. In our series, St. Pete 2.0, we’re partnering with the St. Petersburg Downtown Partnership to explore what lies on the other side of our potential – what will it take to move to the “next level” as a city? Through this series, we’ll dig into specific topics with the hope that you, our thoughtful citizens, will share your insight, experience and wisdom. 

Last month, we delivered the results of our first survey with the St. Petersburg Downtown Partnership on bus rapid transit. Today, we bring you the results of part two, development in St. Pete. 

As Jason Mathis, executive director of the St. Petersburg Downtown Partnership explained, development is all around us. St. Pete is rising, literally. But the questions that surround development are highly nuanced. How do we balance growth and preservation? How do we ensure St. Pete keeps its charm? 

The St. Petersburg Downtown Partnership is an economic development organization, and we support community prosperity. Growth is good, and the Downtown Partnership supports high quality, sustainable projects that provide more places for people to live, work and play in our community,” he wrote.

“But we are not pro-development for the sake of development. We are also not pro-preservation for the sake of preservation. We know that growth is inevitable and our community will continue to evolve. Evolution is the sign of a healthy and thriving city. And we want to ensure that as we grow, we are building on the values that have helped to make St. Petersburg such an incredible community.”

With those thoughts in mind, we devised a survey to capture the thoughts from you, our readers, in long form. We sought ideas, greater than one word answers or multiple choice questions. 

We asked a series of questions to get to the bottom of what St. Pete’s citizens want for their city: As St. Pete grows, what should be its top priority over the next decade? What are the biggest threats and opportunities St. Pete faces related to growth? How do we balance attracting talent that wants to live and work in St. Pete with maintaining a high quality of life for current residents? How do we ensure that the economic prosperity seen downtown extends to other parts of the community? What is your vision for St. Petersburg in 2030?

Here’s what we found:

You’ve got climate on your minds

When asked what St. Pete’s top priority should be over the next decade, the top choice of respondents was sustainability/resiliency. St. Pete’s citizens are already feeling the impacts of climate change and sea level rise, and they know how vulnerable the Gulf Coast is to environmental threats. While many see other issues like transportation or economic growth as important, they’re keenly aware that if climate change is left unaddressed, climate disaster could dash other efforts.

“[Climate change] will affect everyone, and is too big to just react to,” wrote one respondent. “It will require difficult, forward thinking decisions, and creative un-tested solutions. But it is a MUST.”

“As density, congestion and extreme climate issues impact our city, we won’t have an economy or people to transport if we can’t provide water, power, food or shelter to the people living on our peninsula,” said another. “Doing so will be the catalyst for new jobs and industries here. We’ll become the place in the USA that’s making it happen – for us and others.”

When asked about their vision for St. Pete in 2030, many residents clearly saw addressing climate change as part of a broad, multi-faceted vision for the city’s future. One response described future St. Pete as “a green, green city that is already embarked on a plan for climate change and sea-level rise.” Another saw “a thriving, diverse city that’s known for its innovative approach to addressing the growing threats of climate change, while maintaining its edgy/artsy personality.”

One respondent outlined a bold vision for what a green, sustainable city would look like: “One that is renowned as an international model for how to create truly a sustainable, equitable and livable indoor-outdoor community designed for humans (and nature) to thrive. Solar/bio-energy. Full scale composting (waste to soil and energy). Green roofs and water catchment. Walking trails with lots of tree canopy. Edible landscapes where city workers grow and harvest food rather than fertilize and mow. Places people want to gather.”

St. Pete’s charm is under threat

Readers expressed concerns that rampant development could mean losing what makes St. Pete so special in the first place. Words like funk, charm, ambiance, character, culture and vibe resurfaced over and over again. Threats to St. Pete’s charm varied from chain stores and restaurants, to overdevelopment, to high rise condominiums and lack of affordable housing. We often hear St. Pete compared to other cities, “the next Austin or Portland,” but readers made it clear that they want St. Pete to remain uniquely St. Pete. They rejected comparisons to Tampa, Miami or other cities in the Southeast and implored that we not fall into the trap of emulating other cities.

“The biggest threat is losing the ambiance that makes St. Pete a cool place to visit and live. I fear that more ‘chain’ restaurants will overtake the downtown area. I also fear that the arts district, murals, views of the bay and real genuine people will all be cast to the shadows as the city focuses more on bringing outside companies, franchises and investors to the area,” said one respondent. “I already cannot afford to live downtown, with the lack of affordable housing today, I worry what it’ll be like in 10 years.”

“Adding so many higher-end residential units in the downtown area will eventually swing the balance of the work/live economy,” said another. “There is a high risk of St Pete losing its character and charm if downtown become packed with high-rise buildings.”

“Overbuilding is a huge concern,” wrote another reader. “Myrtle Beach is a prime example. You don’t want it to be a tourist trap, you come for the vibe. To see the water, the culture, not be covered by high-rise buildings. You don’t want a Walmart on every corner or you just become a regular city, not anything special.”

“Overbuilding is a great threat,” echoed another. “There are excellent opportunities, but they need to be balanced with support of the smaller local businesses and history that make St. Pete charming.”

According to one reader, the city’s greatest threat is loss of city character. “It is growing too fast and quickly losing what made it unique in the first place.  There are already blocks downtown where the sun doesn’t shine due to always being in the shadows of high rises. It is becoming like every other city … It breaks my heart.”

Transportation, density and affordable housing are connected

Echoing back to our first survey, many respondents saw transportation as the major obstacle in taking St. Petersburg to the next level. But they also saw it as connected to “archaic” zoning ordinances that have led to primarily single-family zoning throughout the city, and contributed to a shortage in affordable housing. Responses showed that residents are on board with the city’s movements toward allowing more density: including allowing duplexes, triplexes and accessory dwelling units, increasing floor area ratio (FAR) bonuses and reducing parking requirements.

“Our public transportation system is decades behind most cities of comparable size,” said one resident. “Transportation will lead to economic growth, increasing equity, and help us with zoning by encouraging affordable development on transit corridors.”

Many residents expressed fears around the high rise condominium development, while at the same time supporting increasing density, a nuance that often gets lost in the conversation around development. “Many millennials, myself included, want denser, more accessible cities to live, work, and play in (that doesn’t necessarily mean more towers downtown),” one respondent said. “More engaging businesses along corridors, transportation options, housing affordability. I believe we are growing in the right way currently to attract talent; we just need these few tweaks.”

“If we remain single family, prices will rise and we will lose out on workforce moving here,” said another. “We have huge opportunities for change/growth, as much of our city is redeveloping and our housing stock ages, we need to change zoning to allow for more dense development when houses are torn down.”

“Improve transportation options that can move people from high unemployment neighborhoods to the areas like Downtown, Gateway, and the beaches that have lots of labor demand,” wrote another.

“I hope that we work on our transit options and density,” another respondent echoed. “We can create denser neighborhoods without buildings taller than three-four stories.”

Other respondents applauded the city’s Complete Streets initiative on MLK and argued for more, similar projects, connecting businesses and neighborhoods. “Use our existing corridors (4th/MLK/16th Streets and 1st/5th/9th/22nd/30th/etc. Avenues) to create walkable/engaging corridors with businesses (look at many semi-urban arterial roads in Australia, the UK, etc. for examples).”

One respondent referred back to St. Pete City Council member Darden Rice’s complete neighborhoods plan. “I hope we keep pushing for local businesses and perhaps addressing changes in zoning (parking minimums should come down/we should opt for denser residential neighborhoods – love Darden’s ‘plan’!)”

Others brought forward their own solutions. “Create a fun, hip, transportation system that can easily shuttle people between each of our region’s walkable community centers. That allows people to live-work-play and connect with people more easily (even if they can’t live downtown).”

2030 brings opportunity at Tropicana Field, bold visions for St. Pete’s future

St. Pete’s residents see a city on the cusp of opportunity. They are fully aware of the unmatched redevelopment opportunity that is the 86-acre Tropicana Field site and its capacity to change the fabric of the city. With or without the Tampa Bay Rays (their contract with the site ends in 2027), residents see the Tropicana Field site as part of a larger future vision for St. Petersburg. They see it as a second hub for downtown, a future convention center, a public park system, a site for mixed use development and affordable housing.

Rendering from Tropicana Field Conceptual Master Plan [HKS Architects]

Looking forward to 2030, we asked readers for their vision of the city. One respondent wrote, “Redevelop under-performing assets such as Tropicana into a campus for large employers, affordable housing and public parks.”

“Redevelop the Trop with a focus on corporate office space (and a stadium on the site of Al Lang),” another agreed. “That can be a hub for corporations close to one of the best waterfronts in the country, which should draw a good balance of working class residents that can afford living DT or close to the DT area.”

Another reader focused on a more specific piece of the redevelopment plan, razing I-175, the interstate that currently bisects downtown: “Redevelop the Trop site, to include removal of the interstate inlet/outlet and increase natural traffic flow between downtown and south St. Pete.”

“Remove I-175 (a physical, racial and economic barrier) with on/off ramps to I-275 at grade by 16th St,” another agreed. “Use the reclaimed interstate land, Booker Creek, and Campbell Park / Regional Skate Park as integral part of Trop Site redevelopment. Why not add Campbell Park’s 33+ acres of park space, plus interstate acreage, to the Trop Site’s 86 acres of development?”

Other readers called for “Continued smart growth with a second city center on the Trop site which expands the definition of downtown further west and south.”

The most impactful responses were those who shared their visions for the city’s future.

“A bigger skyline, working public transit, and USFSP has expanded into a larger footprint. As a backbone, these things would be make the rest of the city work much better,” one respondent argued.

“I’d like to see a master plan for the Trop site that is the envy of any city around the world … a city that has used smart development on transit corridors with a well working transit system to move people efficiently … a city that has helped residents stay in their homes and one that has put a large dent in the attainable housing stock … a city that ensures our children are read to and prepared for kindergarten, and lastly a city with clean water, oxygen-rich air, more green space,” one reader wrote.

“A dynamic city with one of the best waterfronts in the country, amazing food and entertainment options, but still eclectic, unique, connected to a more corporate district on the Trop site with a MLB stadium at either Al Lang or the Trop site. A city that is easily accessible via ferry and high speed rail to Tampa and other regional areas. A quick rail system along 1st Ave S (where the bike lane is) to connect the Trop site to the waterfront,” wrote another.

“A dynamic waterfront with a plethora of food and entertainment options easily connected to Tampa via ferry and rail. A redeveloped Trop site focusing on corporate office space, a convention center or a moderately-sized mall (like Ellington or International Plaza) to draw people and tourists. But keeping Central Ave unique and a connecting artery from waterfront to the DT waterfront area. A baseball team! Focus on affordable middle class housing in and around DT for working people at the new corporate business center on the Trop site,” another argued.

“A city that has taken a hard look at who it was, who it is, and who it wants to be. A city implementing a resilient transportation plan that preserves natural resources, and doesn’t take advantage of them. A city that is deeply investing in urban renewal that prioritizes helping historic residents maintain their homes and communities, rather than pushing and pricing them out. A city that demonstrates through action, rather than just words, that it is a place for all to live, work and play.”

 

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