ST. PETERSBURG — Disston Plaza, with its freshly paved and striped parking lot, newly planted palm trees and just-opened Publix, began to draw traffic complaints weeks before shoppers thronged the supermarket Saturday.
Besides Publix, the 129,000-square-foot shopping center at 3501 49th St. N includes Beall’s Outlet, Dollar Tree, Pet Supermarket, Subway and Toby’s Original Little Italy Pizza.
Improvements to the 57-year-old plaza began last fall and have included construction of the new Publix to replace the old store that was demolished, upgrades to lighting and landscaping and the addition of a traffic signal at the plaza’s relocated south entrance off 49th Street.
The new entrance is causing concern for some drivers.
Disston Heights residents have been discussing the problem on Nextdoor, the neighborhood social media site, for weeks. It’s how David Banghart learned of it.
"I took a drive to see for myself and saw the issue. This is not safe. There is a potential for accidents. I don’t understand why this was designed this way and why the city let it be approved," he said in an email.
"The lane for the incoming traffic sort of gets cut off by the left turn outgoing lane and the Subway area parking lot curbs," Banghart said, adding that he was forced to veer right into the Subway parking lot area because of exiting traffic turning left onto 49th Street.
Jennifer Joern, president of the Disston Heights Civic Association, said she was aware of concerns about "long lines" at the new entrance.
"There’s a traffic signal there, which I think is fantastic, because it addresses the public safety issues," she said.
But because of the complaints on Nextdoor, Joern said she contacted the Sembler Co., which owns the shopping center with Forge Capital Partners, through its Forge Real Estate Partners III investment fund.
"I spoke with the construction manager and he recognized and agreed with the comments," she said. "Forty-ninth Street is a county road. He was going to contact the county to see if they would make any changes on the timing of the light."
Though 49th Street is a county road, St. Petersburg is responsible for maintaining the traffic lights at 49th Street and 38th Avenue N and points south, said Tim Funderburk, traffic signal coordinator for the city.
He said he had also heard concerns from the contractor about wait times for drivers exiting the parking lot’s new entrance. Funderburk said he explained that the main issue was to keep traffic flowing on 49th Street and coordinated with the 49th Street and 38th Avenue N intersection and at the same time allowing those leaving the shopping center "to access 49th Street safely."
Following his discussion with the contractor, however, Funderburk adjusted the traffic light for drivers exiting the plaza. He told the Tampa Bay Times that changing the timing of the 49th Street and 38th Avenue N light "would create problems at more intersections than the shopping center."
Early Monday afternoon, two days after the new Publix opened, Funderburk again visited the site. He said he saw no traffic backups, but evening technicians did, so Tuesday another adjustment was made to the traffic signal.
"I increased the time for the people coming out of the plaza," Funderburk said.
He hopes that solves the problem, he said.
Joern believes safety is more important than a little delay or being forced to make an extra turn in the parking lot.
"I find waiting in line negligible compared to public safety measures that have been added with the traffic light being moved and the relocation of the south entrance," she said.
Contact Waveney Ann Moore at [email protected] or (727) 892-2283. Follow @wmooretimes.