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Destination: Downtown St. Petersburg

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Suddenly, St. Petersburg's Central Avenue and its environs are worth the drive for a night out, drawing everyone from well-heeled diners to pink-haired punkers.

By JAY CRIDLIN, Times Staff Writer

Published March 31, 2005

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ST. PETERSBURG - Things were looking bleak when Ronnie Lee's favorite watering holes went dry.

The Silver King. The Camel Club. Budious Maximus. All were hip spots to sit and sip drinks. And all were casualties of a late '90s swoon in downtown St. Petersburg's nightlife economy.

"It had a bad reputation," said Lee, 33. "It used to be, "You don't go downtown after dark.' "

But a funny thing has happened since then. New bars have opened at BayWalk and the east end of Central Avenue. Older ones are being rediscovered by cliques of young artists and musicians.

Against all odds, Lee said, downtown St. Petersburg is becoming the new scene to be seen. And with the Grand Prix races drawing thousands of visitors, this weekend will be particularly active.

"It's just got a cool vibe to it," he said. "You go to Ybor, and it's a bunch of people going out clubbing, a younger crowd dressed to impress. In St. Pete, you can come out and be who you are, and it doesn't really matter."

That atmosphere has pumped new life into a diverse string of hot spots near Central, from the kitschy Uptown Bar to the vibrant Rare Olive to the stylish Moon Under Water.

On any given Friday or Saturday night, Central Avenue teems with Zegna-clad diners at Redwoods, pink-haired punks outside the State Theatre and college kids in Abercrombie tees at Mastry's. Some live nearby, but many are coming from Hillsborough and Pasco counties.

"Downtown," said Emmanuel Roux, owner of the Garden restaurant on Central, "is really becoming a destination."

A dive with a vibe

How did St. Petersburg - once a setting for the film Cocoon - suddenly become cool?

"We have a lot of different, eclectic places on a smaller, better scale," said Tracy Issacs, the 24-year-old bar manager at Fortunato's After Dark.

Take the Emerald Bar, an artsy-kitschy dive bar on Central with faux wood-paneled walls and Social Distortion on the jukebox, where regulars still stream in during the day, with a younger crowd moving in at night.

About four years ago, George Marano, whose family has owned the Irish pub since 1950, hired younger bartenders with friends in the local art and music scenes. Three years ago, those friends suggested hosting art shows at the bar. Now the walls are lined with paintings by local artists; new pieces are swapped in every two months.

The result is a bar that feels lived-in - the Emerald has been in the same spot for 41 years - yet also literate, contemporary and vibrant.

"Bands want to play here," Marano says. "I don't solicit bands, bands solicit me. And I'm booked two months ahead of time."

Don't build it; they'll come

As with the Emerald, much of downtown's buzz seems to have arisen gradually, starting when Jannus Landing, built in 1888, was reinvented as an outdoor concert venue in 1980. In 1992, an $88-million restoration of the Vinoy Hotel added luster to Beach Drive and the city's waterfront.

But part of downtown's success can be attributed to the projects that didn't go through. Case in point: the failed Bay Plaza project, a proposed $200-million outdoor shopping center that polarized downtown residents and city officials in the early 1990s.

The project could have brought a distinct design, high-end retail and a 24-screen movie theater to six or more blocks near the east end of Central.

But plans called for a parking garage on the Jannus Landing-Detroit Hotel block, which today, along with BayWalk, is one of the cornerstones of St. Petersburg's weekend scene. Without Jannus Landing, popular bars like Mastry's, Fortunato's, the Pelican Pub and the Lobby Bar probably would not exist.

"It's hard to speculate whether it would have been better or worse, but it certainly would have been different," said Don Shea, president of the St. Petersburg Downtown Partnership. "And since we're not unhappy with what it is, then maybe that's a good thing."

More growth is on the way. Two thousand housing units are proposed or under construction downtown, including a pair of $100-million condo-retail towers. There is talk of an upscale hotel, anchored by stores like the Gap and Banana Republic, on a lot south of BayWalk. And the University of South Florida will soon break ground on an $18.3-million dormitory in downtown St. Petersburg, where student enrollment has risen from 3,500 in 2000 to an expected 6,000 by 2008.

"Pick your scene"

All of this activity is leading some downtown regulars to wonder: Can St. Petersburg avoid the changes that befell Ybor City?

"Look at Ybor," Lee said. "It used to be an artsy, eclectic, cool area. And they swarmed it with too many bars and got rid of the arts. That killed it, I think."

St. Petersburg is home to dozens of art galleries and museums, not to mention the artists and musicians that frequent them. Those roots lend the area a sense of substance and authenticity that downtown regulars say no longer exists in Ybor City or Channelside in Tampa.

John "Jack" Bodziak, the owner of Jannus Landing, also says that compared with Ybor City, St. Petersburg seems more secure.

"We're not fronting up right against a very downtrodden area like it is there," said Bodziak, 32. "If you look at BayWalk, and the problems there have been with kids, I think the city's really been on it - and so has BayWalk itself - to address the problem."

Lee is doing his part to see that downtown St. Pete gets its moment in the spotlight. For the past two years, he has run a Web site, www.downtownpete.com devoted to places to eat, drink and party on and around Central Avenue.

"Why wouldn't it become popular? You can be yourself, you can do what you want," he said. "Sit on Central at night, and you can see anything from people dressed pretty highbrow, going to the Garden, to people going to a punk show at the State Theatre. They're on the same sidewalk, all night long.

"You can pick your scene, whatever scene you feel like that day. You can't really do that anywhere else."

Jay Cridlin can be reached at [email protected]

http://www.sptimes.com/2005/03/31/Weekend/..._downtown.shtml

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