ST. PETE BEACH — Visitors driving into St. Pete Beach’s aging urban core don’t necessarily get that hip beach town vibe city leaders and merchants hope to give off.
There are no pedestrians walking along the narrow sidewalks of 75th Avenue or Gulf Boulevard, multilane state roads that lead to the city’s historic Corey Avenue business district.
A flood of cars speed past an array of stark strip centers and business choices such as a Christmas shop across the way from Mermaids Gentlemen’s Club.
The future, though, could be very different for this commercial district bounded by water on two sides.
An empty police station at the city’s eastern gateway near Boca Ciega Bay is being considered as a new location for the former Pier Aquarium, recalling memories of the once-popular Aquatarium on the beach.
On the west side of town, a developer is buying up property along Sunset Park with an eye toward building a boutique hotel with retail space overlooking Blind Pass and the Gulf of Mexico.
These are among the immediate possibilities for St. Pete Beach’s city center, which long has lain dormant while the beach front has grown.
The town’s notorious battles between residents who favor the quaint and developers looking to seize on growth haven’t fully dissolved — many still view proposals for tall hotels with suspicion — but there appears to be momentum behind efforts to bring new life to this old main street.
“I think it’s just marvelous to see everyone embracing the possibility of what it could be,” newly-elected Mayor Maria Lowe said at a recent meeting on plans to revive the Corey Avenue area.
There still are questions surrounding a vision for the district expected to be finalized by a consultant this spring.
But many of its main tenets unveiled in a series of recent public meetings got positive feedback from residents.
Consultants with the Michael Baker Jr. group showed images of a greener, more walkable downtown; bike lanes and storefront parking divided from busy thoroughfares with tree-lined medians.
If the aquarium goes forward, a footbridge would help people safely cross 75th Avenue to access the new attraction and a city park on the bay.
Sunset Park could become a focal point for a waterfront boardwalk linking a hotel, dining and shopping with the main drag of Corey Avenue.
In September, the city hired Baker consultants to draft a vision for redeveloping the aging town center, which is plagued with traffic problems during spring break and other peak tourism times.
The consultants have been careful to emphasize that the vision they’re forming with the help of residents is not a formal plan, but rather a broad concept for the city’s future.
The process is happening in tandem with the establishment of a Community Redevelopment Area in the Corey Avenue district, a traditional main-street-style road with a mix of art galleries, restaurants, shops and an old movie theatre.
The CRA would allow the city to use property taxes resulting from increasing property values to reinvest in beautification and infrastructure.
Several new businesses have moved onto Corey Avenue in recent years, and developers are starting to show an interest in building small hotels and new retail, but the five-lane roads maintained by the Florida Department of Transportation create a barrier for pedestrians between its east and west waterfronts.
Key to the Baker group’s proposal is a traffic couplet that would cordon off the frontage for shops from the busy traffic of Gulf Boulevard and 75th Avenue.
The plan envisions one lane with parallel parking spots in front of businesses, which would be divided from the heavy traffic with a wide median that would include a bike lane.
While residents have expressed concerns about the adequacy of the couplet, especially during peak tourism times, consultant Jerry Dabkowski told commissioners that he has met several times with state transportation officials and concluded it’s the best alternative as the city looks to manage traffic increases.
The couplet is projected to cost $1 million for an essentially bare road, and up to $3 million with the addition of substantial streetscape improvements, lighting and other enhancements.
City Manager Mike Bonfield said the project could be expedited if the city gains control of these sections of road from the state, which the DOT has shown an interest in doing.
“It’s just a stark entrance,” Bonfield said of 75th Avenue and Gulf Boulevard. “It’s not a very attractive part of our town.”
That part of town could see a drastic change if it were more walkable and if the Secrets of the Sea Aquarium builds its multimillion dollar marine attraction at the vacant police station building off 75th Avenue.
Aquarium officials and area business leaders are hopeful, though a concrete plan is far off.
Secrets of the Sea started looking at St. Pete Beach late last year after the construction of a $4 million aquarium at John’s Pass Village in Madeira Beach fell apart because of a long-delayed loan approval.
The nonprofit aquarium imagines a two-tiered marine exhibit in the police building with the same educational focus planned at Johns Pass.
Results of a feasibility study this spring will give a clearer indication whether renovating the space is cost-effective, aquarium board Chairwoman Lari Johnson said.
“This is something that would certainly be a tourist draw to the Corey Avenue area,” Johnson said.
The aquarium would be a catalyst for other private investment and development, and add an attraction for tourists beyond Gulf Boulevard’s wide beaches, said Sirata Beach Resort owner Gregg Nicklaus, a vocal supporter of Secrets of the Sea’s former plans at John’s Pass Village.
Regardless of whether the aquarium is built, Nicklaus says redeveloping Corey Avenue with new businesses and amenities would change St. Pete Beach as a whole.
“Our Corey Avenue is a little gem. It’s got water on both ends. It’s not likely you’d have to push hard to make it aesthetically pleasing,” he said. “It just needs an infusion of capital.”
While residents are warming up to the idea of redevelopment, many continued to make it clear to consultants and city leaders in several meetings that an eight-story hotel at one end or the other of Corey Avenue would not be welcomed.
Putting aside big-picture changes, some of which may be driven by the private market, there’s plenty to be done to start changing the face of downtown St. Pete Beach, consultant Susan Harden said.
“Some of these things could be initiated within six months if people want to start looking at their own businesses, their own faįade, their own signs,” she said.
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