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St. Pete to crack down on unregulated commercial activity

Mark Parker

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Following a recent increase in commercial activity in areas like the Edge District (pictured), city officials are expanding sidewalk and walkway restrictions. Photos by Mark Parker.

The City of St. Petersburg is expanding downtown sidewalk regulations to curb unlicensed commercial activity, promote safety and protect landscaping throughout downtown and the Edge, Grand Central and Pier Districts.

During Thursday’s Public Services & Infrastructure meeting, city council members heard recommendations stemming from discussions between several administrative departments and the St. Petersburg Police Department. Brett Pettigrew, assistant city attorney, began the presentation by stating that during the meetings it became apparent that the city needed to expand the area to which the regulations apply and the list of objects it restricts.

Since adopting the original ordinance in 2019, the high concentration of economic activity previously confined to downtown has expanded to include the Edge and Grand Central Districts and the area around the new Pier. Pettigrew explained the size of tables in those areas is not the only issue – it is a combination of the object and people congregating, which interferes with the flow of pedestrian and vehicular traffic.

“It’s a multistep issue,” he said. “What became apparent during these meetings is any furniture equipment or other types of objects that are being used for display, exhibition, presentation or distribution to the public causes these issues.”

Pettigrew noted the city offers sidewalk retail and café permits, and the amendment to the city code focuses on unregulated objects within the right of way. He said the new version of the regulation refers to “covered objects,” which allows the city to adjust the definition as needed to ensure it applies to anything causing safety, economic or aesthetic issues.

Pettigrew said the city previously established the prohibition zone through a legal description. Due to the expansion in commercial activities, he told council members it is better to align the new restrictions with city zoning, which went through an extensive process to determine activities and uses in specific areas.

The current prohibition zone exists between 1st Avenues North and South, with a western boundary of 31st Street. Following conversations with the city’s coding and police departments, Pettigrew said it was necessary to extend the restrictions to 34th Street.

A map showing the expanded area of restrictions. Screengrab.

“There is a Union Central master plan that calls for new zoning districts in that area,” explained Pettigrew. “To better reflect the current and desired use of that area.

“As a stopgap measure until the zoning catches up with the actual use, we do believe that a further modification of this would be appropriate …”

The amendment maintains a requirement that regulations apply without consideration of any content or viewpoints. Pettigrew said the concern is with a table on the sidewalk, not that someone is using the table to talk about a specific subject.

The expanded prohibition applies to any right-of-way, sidewalk or public path used for vehicular or pedestrian travel within the restricted zoning. Pettigrew said that addresses the walkways within the Pier District and municipal parks not technically covered by the previous language. He added that the city is working on a map to clarify its classification of areas within the Pier District for the benefit of residents and the police enforcement,

Another new component: The amendment prohibits objects from areas adjacent to paths and walkways that could damage landscaping.

“So, you may place your table in a grassy area … but you can’t do so in a way that would trample on someone’s vegetation,” he said.

Pettigrew stressed that the restrictions do not apply to “performance” activities constitutionally protected by the First Amendment.

“There are similar safety, economic and aesthetic concerns,” he said. “But there are much more significant free speech concerns when we’re talking about performance and expressive activity.”

The amendment also maintains provisions requiring a warning in certain circumstances and allows the city to remove, store and dispose of objects found in violation.

Councilmember Deborah Figgs-Sanders said she was OK with the ordinance stopping at 31st Street but did not recall seeing an issue with tables between 31st and 34th. She wondered if the expansion was an attempt to address vagrancy near the bus stop in the area.

James Corbett, neighborhood affairs administrator, said that calls about tables in the area are intermittent, but there is an issue.

“I will say that there is no intent in this ordinance to deal with vagrancy or the folks at the PSTA bus station,” said Corbett. “This has nothing to do with the homeless population … generally, this is individuals trying to sell to those folks.”

The council unanimously approved the amendment to the city code.

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    Oliver

    May 12, 2022at4:24 pm

    How about limiting the amplification of first amendment pier district street performers to a reasonable level (maybe NO amplification?). This will greatly improve the ambiance and reduce the cacophony of competing musicians, both fixed and mobile, in the area, making it visitor friendlier. Just say’n.

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