A Tale of Two Cities

Why St. Petersburg's downtown beats Tampa's

click to enlarge RICHARD FLORIDA-APPROVED: St. Pete has - become the city Tampa always wanted to be. Gwen - Reese, at left, and Anna Ruth dine alfresco in the - Burg. - TODD RICHARDSON
RICHARD FLORIDA-APPROVED: St. Pete has become the city Tampa always wanted to be. Gwen Reese, at left, and Anna Ruth dine alfresco in the Burg.

Let's face it. Tampa is no San Francisco, New York or even New Orleans. But once upon a time it was at least the nexus of the Tampa Bay metropolitan area, attracting the most energetic, creative and entrepreneurial types in the region.

No longer.

The center of our metropolis is shifting across the bay to the town Tampans once smugly described as God's waiting room. Indeed those who lived in St. Petersburg were once so eager to shed the town's image as a sleepy retirement burg that they did some really stupid things. One of their more foolish and inhumane tactics was to basically treat the retirees like vagrants by removing the city's trademark green benches to make downtown less hospitable to elderly pedestrians. Fortunately for St. Pete, the Burg's efforts to be more like Tampa were largely unsuccessful.

While yuppies were invading South Tampa, driving real estate prices up and bohemian types out, St. Pete's inner-city neighborhoods remained affordable and slightly shabby. While speculators were buying up and sitting on Ybor City property, driving prices up and artists out, St. Pete offered just the kind of low-cost and interesting buildings and neighborhoods that attract artists.

Now, downtown Tampa continues to resemble a ghost town at night and on weekends; South Tampa has become a pretentious, homogenized yuppie enclave; and I have a hunch that the drunken brawlers in Ybor don't much appreciate the fascinating architecture and history that surround them.

By comparison, St. Petersburg's city center has a sparkling waterfront that is comfortable and accessible to all, human-scale pedestrian-friendly streets with shady sidewalks and cafes, a mix of residential and commercial buildings and a charming blend of 1920s land-boom Deco and Mediterranean Revival buildings, Florida bungalows, cracker cottages, boarding houses and retro neon signs. And it's all within walking distance of shops, thrift stores, movie theaters, museums, galleries, restaurants, nightclubs, parks and offices.

On any day, you can walk around downtown St. Pete and find people of all ages, races and socioeconomic strata walking, bicycling, working, being neighborly, meeting, eating, shopping and just hanging out. It's a veritable Richard Florida poster city.

How did St. Petersburg become the city Tampa always wanted to be?

"We finally quit trying to be Tampa and just began being St. Pete," says Gene Smith, a political and finance consultant who has lived in the Burg since 1956.

And St. Petersburg had one absolutely essential ingredient lacking in Tampa: "We've got residential downtown," says Smith. That residential includes historic neighborhoods as well as newer high-rise condominiums with spectacular waterfront views. A St. Petersburg zoning official recently told the Planet that current city regulations limit the density and height of high rises in the city center sufficiently to keep the city from being visually cut off from the waterfront and to avert the canyon effect that clusters of high rises create.

Self-described "marketing commando" Peter Kageyama moved to St. Pete from Ohio in 1992 between undergraduate and law school. "I fell in love with the area," he says. "Doing triathlons and bicycle racing beat the heck out of scraping ice off my car in February in Ohio." He now lives in Safety Harbor and works out of his house, but he and his wife are considering moving to downtown St. Pete. "Obviously, St. Pete is the place to be." As evidence, he cites the city's beautiful architecture and waterfront, urban amenities, walkability, outdoor recreation and general buzz. "Downtown St. Pete is hot."

Kageyama ought to know what's hot. His wife, Michelle Bauer, is one of the founding members of Creative Tampa Bay (a.k.a. the Church of Richard Florida, trendy economist and development guru) and he will soon join its board of directors. That makes him something of a trendmeister.

Though Kageyama says he's a little older than the demographic Richard Florida tells cities they should be trying to attract, in most ways, Kageyama fits the profile perfectly: a well-educated, upwardly mobile, tech-savvy, athletic entrepreneur who works in a creative industry and wants to live in a stimulating urban environment. "There's so much stuff to do here," he says. Did you know the largest triathlon club started out of North Shore pool? ... Swimming and running groups, cycling groups meet there on a daily basis. There are tennis courts, the Vinoy Golf Club ... and there's a Publix going in downtown where the old Dew Cadillac was."

One of the things that has Kageyama particularly jazzed right now is discussion at St. Pete Downtown Partnership meetings of creating a wi-fi hot zone downtown. Basically a wi-fi hot zone is a place that provides wireless access to the Internet. You've probably seen the television ads featuring a guy who looks like he just stepped off the set of The Matrix playing on his laptop in an Italian piazza. That's wi-fi he's using. "It's one of those things that puts you on the map," says Kageyama.

Both Smith and Kageyama attend an informal, power coffee klatch at Atlanta Bread Company on Friday mornings at 8:15. Artists, politicians, social workers, lawyers, and assorted other movers and shakers turn up to share advice, information and resources, and talk about local issues, events, ideas and projects in the works. The relaxed and unpretentious atmosphere of the meeting matches the ambiance of the city.

On the day I visit, there is some joking about a suggestion to call St. Pete the City of the Arts. It's the sort of silly civic sloganeering and hyperbole that Tampa has often been guilty of. Remember America's Next Great City?

In a later interview, Gene Smith says that instead of calling St. Pete the City of the Arts, "we should be working on making St. Pete itself a work of art." Now that's a slogan I can get behind.

It's a thought politicians, chambers of commerce, downtown partnerships, and assorted other civic boosters, activists and developers would do well to remember in every meeting they attend. If you spend less time figuring out how to hype your town and more time figuring out how to make it gracious and habitable, it will sell itself.

Contributing Editor Susan F. Edwards can be reached at [email protected].