MAXWELL:  Downtown St. Petersburg transformed

5/1/2002 – Printed in the EDITORIAL Section of the St Petersburg Times Newspapera

Last Sunday afternoon, after driving from Gainesville, I saw a movie at BayWalk. Afterward, I walked to the Garden Restaurant to eat. The sidewalks were busy. At least two dozen patrons ate and drank at the Garden.

When I left the restaurant about 10 p.m. and rejoined sidewalk traffic, I realized how easily I had begun to take downtown St. Petersburg for granted. I was acting as if downtown nightlife always had been this vibrant.

Such is hardly the case. I moved to St. Petersburg in 1994, for one reason only: to write for the St. Petersburg Times. Nothing except the Times could have brought me here.

Because my paternal grandfather was born and reared in Tampa, I visited Tampa Bay at least once a year while growing up. I was familiar with St. Petersburg, its green benches, its old people, its dullness. The most exciting happening here was Webb’s City, the “World’s Most Unusual Drug Store.” I did not like the store because of its “Whites Only” and “Colored Only” drinking fountains.

Before reporting to the Times, I drove here to look around and to find housing. Few businesses were open after night fell. And no movie theater was downtown. The few restaurants I found were so-so. I saw very few other people on the streets.

St. Petersburg was a pitiful affair. I was tempted to call my new boss and tell him to “take this job and shove it,” that I preferred to stay with my Appaloosa, the gopher tortoises and my vegetable garden in the woods of Bronson rather move to this dreary town on the bay. I telephoned friends and colleagues in Gainesville and told them I had made a big mistake.

The other day, I spoke with several colleagues at the Times, some who arrived in the 1980s. Their experiences mirror mine. They, too, came here because of the job and did not like St. Petersburg initially.

A veteran reporter’s written description: “I came to the city in early December 1986. Downtown was a pretty dead place. As a bachelor in his late 20s, I wondered what I had gotten myself into. Jannus Landing was on the wane. The Vinoy was vacant and decrepit. The Pier, long before its remodeling, was a tired monument to the architectural sins of the 1960 and ’70s. Beach Drive seemed mildly quaint but had no energy or sense of cohesion.”

Today, like me, this colleague and others believe that St. Petersburg is a great place to live and to rear children. I would live here now even if I did not write for the Times.

Many forces converged to create the new downtown. I am by no means an insider, but I know smart planning and vision when I see them. I also know dumb planning and myopia when I see them. One of the wisest decisions made was preserving the waterfront for the people. As a Fort Lauderdale native, I have seen the results of greed and stupid waterfront planning.

St. Petersburg’s fabulous waterfront sets the rhythm for downtown. Even with BayWalk and its fashionable shops, the pace remains relaxed and unpretentious. Few things are more pleasant than walking along the water at night.

The Pier is an international gathering spot of diverse cultures and ethnicities. That fact alone keeps me returning there. The art scene is sophisticated and is getting better all the time.

In 1994, people I went out with on the weekend had the same destination: Tampa and Ybor City. Not anymore. We stay in town. In fact, I know people who leave Tampa for St. Petersburg. Many University of South Florida students, at Bayboro, help give downtown its youthful ambience. Indeed, gone are the days when the average age downtown after dark was 55.

Our baseball team has not brought the economic boom we anticipated. Give it time. After a few winning seasons _ and they will come _ good things will follow.

One of my favorite hangouts is the American Stage, the area’s oldest professional theater. The 135-seat venue presents live plays throughout the year. My friends and I rarely miss a show. After each show, we go to a restaurant and talk into the night.

Again, my Times colleague: “Today, as a resident of the Old Northeast with three children, I am surprised and impressed with what has happened _ especially in the area of new housing downtown. When I put it all together with St. Petersburg’s unmatchable waterfront and with the ease of (traffic) compared with other metro areas, I believe I must be in one of the most livable towns in the U.S.”

When the new Publix is built on Dew Cadillac’s current site, downtown will become even more like a real community, where grocery shoppers join movie- and theater-goers after dark.