City Profile: St. Petersburg, part 1

Skyline_StPetersburgFL

 

First, a disclaimer: I was born and raised in St. Petersburg and probably always have a certain bias to this interesting city.  By Florida standards it is a very old city, dating way back to the late 1800’s, named by a Russian nobleman after the Russian city of the same name. What is interesting to me, as a student of urban economics, is how the city was developed over the years. The bottom line is, thanks to the foresight of the early settlers, the St. Petersburg downtown area is become arguably the nicest waterfront downtown of any city in the United States, bar none (at least none that I have yet to see).

Generally speaking what you find across the big cities in the U. S. are cities that either have large interstates and highways that separate the waterfront from the downtown or have commercial, residential and industrial development doing the same thing. Chicago is a great example; its waterfront is totally disconnected from the city by a major 8 or 10 lane Lakeshore Drive. Same can be said about downtown Sarasota, New York, Seattle, and Miami.

St. Petersburg has done two things since the beginning to avoid this fate. First they have vigilantly kept a tight grasp on the public lands lining the downtown waterfront area, away from the eager hands of developers. The park system straddles about 40 city blocks and consists of numerous parks, boating facilities, a small stadium, and several high-quality art museums, including a facility specially designed to house the largest collection of works by Salvador Dalí in the world.

St. Petersburg's Dali Museum

St. Petersburg’s Dali Museum

Secondly they created a road system based upon a simple grid of traditional city blocks. Aided by the fact that there aren’t elevation changes here in Florida or mountains and ravines to dodge, it was a fairly easy task. As such, the city is an amazingly easy city to navigate with seldom a traffic jam. To help the traffic flow work even better they utilized select and strategic one way streets.  The result of an efficient grid system is that the roads don’t have to be nearly as massive to move traffic.

By contrast, the much newer Naples metro area, except for immediate downtown area, had its growth entirely crafted by the development community. What we have largely seen are large blocks of land that were developed into relatively impenetrable (and often gated) communities. In a large portion of Naples you may have to travel two or three miles before you can transverse the other direction. As a result traffic gets funneled into larger and fewer traffic arteries. This results in some pretty major roads with 4-6 lanes of traffic and limiting access points. In older cities, like St. Petersburg and many of the cities in the North and Midwest, the smaller grid roads will encourage a more eclectic mix of commercial and residential neighborhoods.  Here in Naples, the commercial developments largely get concentrated in ‘activity nodes’ surrounding the larger intersections. Whether one system is better than the other is a matter of taste and can shift with the passage of time.

These two factors – the road grid system and the preservation of their waterfront park system – has made St. Petersburg particularly attractive to today’s trend of the gentrification of downtown’s and the desire of people to have a stronger work-live-play connection. St. Petersburg as a result is seeing its redevelopment of their downtown absolutely on fire!  The pro-growth city has seemingly tapped into a strong balance between creating a strong residential downtown that doesn’t close down at night and a vibrant office and commerce setting. The area is absolutely teeming with bars and restaurants as well as cultural hotspots.  Oddly enough the area has largely remained off the radar of many of the chain restaurants (fortunately) who typically opt to locate in St. Petersburg’s larger sister city Tampa.

The growth and redevelopment of the downtown area wasn’t the first time this city has seen a real surge in activity. St. Petersburg really grew into quite a vibrant city back in the 1920’s, before the Great Depression and then a second big surge in the late 40’s and early 50’s after the soldiers came home from The War.  The big social changes in the 60’s and 70’s created period of stagnation and decline which was aggravated by the growing flight to the suburbs and the advent of malls replacing downtown retail (a story that can be repeated throughout the U.S.).  The current wave of redevelopment is particularly exciting because it seems much more enduring and systemic.  It is not the result of a singular large redevelopment project, but is taking place one building at a time over a large area. The tide is rising and the whole city has benefited.

Take a ride to downtown St. Pete or spend the weekend there and you will be surprised and enlightened. As a long time participant in the commercial real estate scene in that area also feel free to contact me to see if it could be part of your real estate strategy.

 

Dougall McCorkle
Premier Commerical, Inc.  lic real estate brokers
239-860-3368
Dougall@premiermail.net

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