Deadlock kills Baywalk privatization

10/01/09 Kate Bradshaw
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After a hearing that lasted nearly six hours, the St. Petersburg City Council voted 4-4 to reject an ordinance that would have privatized the sidewalk that lines the front portion of Baywalk.

Councilmember Herb Polson cast the final “no” vote on an ordinance that would have in effect barred protesters from demonstrating at the public entryway to the ailing shopping center. The site, once symbolic of Downtown St. Pete’s revival, has recently come to symbolize the disconnect between free speech and free enterprise. Historian Ray Arsenault, who testified against the sidewalk vacation, said that the council’s decision on this matter could serve as a turning point in St. Petersburg’s history.

Arsenault was one of nearly seventy residents who delivered public comment during the hearing. Thirty-two people, mostly from the business community, spoke in favor of the ordinance. Thirty five spoke against it, and one spoke from a neutral standpoint. Those against the bill included lawyers, protesters and civil rights leaders. Proponents like Baywalk business owner Mike Shapiro saw privatizing the sidewalk as the only way to insure Baywalk’s survival.

CW Capital Asset Management, Baywalk’s official owner, has acquired eleven billion dollars’ worth of troubled assets. Marvin Muldrew, who represents the firm, listed several ways by which a property can become distressed.

Councilmember Leslie Curran asked Muldrew if he knew of any of the troubled properties CW has acquired became that way because of protesters became that way because of protesters. He said there were none. A number of people on both sides said the situation is unique and, as council member Jim Kennedy said, not an easy decision to make.

Although panhandling and loitering youth helped give rise to the ordinance, concerns over the First Amendment are what ultimately swayed half of the council to vote it down. Council member Wengay Newton read his oath of office aloud to the council.

Baywalk’s future is unclear, but, for now it looks like it will be status quo. CW has backed down on their previous all-or-nothing policy, but have not expressed any concrete alternatives to taking over the sidewalk. Activists say that, though they were looking forward to a protest after the vote, they view the decision as a step forward for democracy.

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