Corey Avenue makeover could include re-routed traffic in St. Pete Beach

03/28/14 Janelle Irwin
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Tags: st. pete beach, Corey Avenue, Beach Theatre, Beach Theater, Gulf Boulevard

St. Pete Beach’s downtown may be in line for a major facelift. That’s if a vision plan created by an outside consulting group goes through. The city commission is getting some backlash from residents.

Consultants are recommending that traffic around downtown be re-routed away from its main street. Right now the east and west sides of Corey Avenue are split by 5 lanes of traffic by Gulf Boulevard. That’s a problem says city manager Mike Bonfield.

“Because now we historically have a couple blocks in the interior that have been the little shopping areas and then we have the west end have been some bars and restaurants. East end, currently, we have some vacant property. It’s just a lot of fragmentation.”

So instead of people leaving St. Pete Beach by turning right from Gulf Boulevard onto Blind Pass Road, consultants are proposing a one-way road to divert the traffic around Corey Avenue. It would lower the speed limit too. But residents have concerns: What about the fire department? The new traffic flow could potentially keep emergency responders from being able to turn right out of the station and instead force trucks to drive around the block. But Gerald Dabkowski with RBF Consulting says that problem has already been vetted with the St. Pete Beach Fire Chief.

“They would go against traffic if they had to go back to the north, but they said that they don’t have a problem. They do that all the time depending on where they are. They put their lights on and they’ll go over little islands if they have to, but he said it’s not going to change their response times.”

On Wednesday night, officials heard public comment on the plan during a community meeting. And a couple dozen residents filled City Commission chambers Thursday night for a workshop on proposed improvements. RBF’s defense of possible new traffic patterns prompted one resident to shout “that’s a bad idea.” Others shook their heads. Because Gulf Boulevard is a state road, any changes have to be approved by the Department of Transportation. The RBF plan, Dabkowski explained, would meet muster. It would also provide wider sidewalks and bike lanes with a median separating pedestrians from bike and motor traffic. Susan Harden is the director of planning and design for RBF.

“One of the comments last night was one to look at maybe doing this as something that’s called a cycle track instead. So, where you see the sidewalk with the pedestrians, the landscape buffer and the bike lane is actually shifting that so that the bicycle is next to the pedestrian, still below the curb and then the landscaping is between the cyclists and the automobiles which then provides even more of a buffer for the cyclist making cycling much more amendable in that street as well.”

But residents also put up a fight during the Wednesday meeting about potential for buildings with five or more stories on both the Gulf and Intracoastal waterfronts. City Manager Bonfield says it’s all about growth.

“What Corey needs is more feet on the street. It just needs more people and that could come in the form of a hotel property. It could come in the form of apartments. It could come in the form of a number of things.”

Other residents expressed concerns about funding. Though many of the visionary plans laid out in the draft proposal would be left up to private developers to adopt and tweak, others, like the traffic changes and streetscaping, would be on the city’s dime. RBF’s director of planning, Harden, argues the expense is well worth it.

“Revitalization says that for every $1 that’s invested to a downtown in the public side, you’ll get a $32 return on investment to the community through private investment. In Washington D.C. they did a study that looked at the $8 million that they invested in public funds and saw within two years they had 32 new businesses and another $8 million reinvested into the community.”

Another important component of the St. Pete Beach Corey Avenue corridor is the iconic Beach Theatre known for its showings of the Rocky Horror Picture show. The theater has been shuttered for years. The owners, a husband and wife, divorced and then the husband passed away before arrangements could be made for all of their assets, including the theater. Bonfield, with the city says he hopes the legal challenges between family members who own the property will be sorted soon.

“To our knowledge, it’s still tied up in probate and the courts. We see that as a very critical element of the downtown.”

St. Pete Beach has also been experimenting at Jackie’s Bistro by allowing dining on street parking since sidewalks aren’t wide enough to seat patrons. Bonfield says that kind of arrangement could also be a part of downtown’s future.

“We don’t have any formal application process. Jackie’s was just the one restaurant on Corey Avenue that came forward and asked and so we gave it a try. I would expect one of the things to come out of this would be a little more of a structure to that potential and that’s a balance between losing parking and having people outside.”

The draft plan will be tweaked based on resident and commission input. A final version will go before the city commission sometime in May.

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