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Does downtown St. Petersburg pass urban muster?

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Does downtown St. Petersburg pass urban muster? It's hard to say

By SANDRA THOMPSON, Tampa Columnist

Published June 5, 2004


We were having dinner with friends last weekend, talking about the city, and how we don't have public transportation or enough bike lanes, and how much we miss an urban experience by closing ourselves off in our cars. Then we got onto the waterfront and downtown, and a friend, a Tampa native, said what I've heard a hundred times now: "But St. Petersburg has really done something with their downtown."

I know that. I have the perspective of having lived in both St. Petersburg and Tampa. I can remember when downtown St. Petersburg didn't even have a hot dog vendor. So, yes, it is better, vastly better, than it used to be, and it's certainly better than Tampa's downtown, but these are not very high bars.

I hadn't been to St. Petersburg in a while - not to walk around downtown, anyway - so I drove over on Thursday. I had a credit at Being, a store for the home in BayWalk, and maybe I'd stop in the Aveda Institute and get a pedicure.

The one-way streets there are as maddening as those in downtown Tampa. I drove around in a six-block circle to get to the street where I wanted to park. I got a 90-minute spot in the shade a block from BayWalk.

When I walked into Being, as if I had scripted it, a sales associate was telling a woman from Rhode Island that Fortune magazine had rated St. Petersburg the best small city in the United States. Really? I hadn't heard that one. He asked her what she thought of it, and she said she was really surprised. There's a lot here, she said. And she hadn't expected to see the mix of people, especially in age.

I couldn't find that Fortune brag on the Web, by the way, but I did find St. Petersburg listed No. 129 among the 200 top small cities in Ladies Home Journal. Tampa was listed as No. 32 among the 200 top big cities.

I didn't buy anything at Being. The store has great stuff, but not great stuff I need right now. With all the talk about how wonderful BayWalk is, this store is far more sophisticated than anything else there, and, as far as I know, anything else in St. Petersburg.

There was almost no one shopping in BayWalk, but, to be fair, you kind of had to be nuts to be outside doing anything in the last few days' weather.

On to the Aveda Institute, a good six blocks' walk. Passing a downtown Starbucks, I noticed it was busy - as it has been every time I've been there. Chalk one up for urban. I stopped in the new Publix - yes, downtown St. Petersburg has a real Publix. I can't say there was a hip, urban scene inside, but it was 11 a.m., and hip urbanites should be at work. And then there's the heat. I did discuss with a woman in the entrance the outrageousness of charging $1.25 for a bottle of vending machine water.

At the Aveda Institute across the street I was offered a small cup of herbal tea for free, which I accepted gratefully, since I wouldn't spring for the $1.25 water. The scene in the back, where advanced students do hair and nails, is very cool and urban: all white and stainless steel, exposed ceiling ducts. No openings for a pedicure, though, and as I was leaving at noon, young Aveda students dressed all in black swarmed like ants across the street to Publix.

It was too hot to be walking, even in the shade, and I needed water, and it was lunchtime, so I ducked into the first place that didn't require any extra steps: the Lucky Dill Deli. (There is also one in downtown Tampa.) It has a New York theme, with photos of the Manhattan skyline and Joe DiMaggio, and it was packed. I asked the young woman at the counter if the Waldorf salad had mayonnaise in it, and she said no, so I ordered it. I asked if I could have a larger plastic cup for water, and she said she would have to charge me.

When I picked up the salad at the other end of the counter, it was clearly mayo-laden. I would have taken it back, but now there were 20 people in line. I slipped into the lone small table, which had the remains of a pastrami sandwich on it and a fork sticking straight up.

I did have a nice chat about the mayo question with a woman sitting at the next table and waiting for the same salad. "Maybe it's yogurt," she said.

It was mayo.

So much for big city life.

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Sounds like typical whining from a nothern big city gal. Probably New York. They like to complain about the food and the heat, in that order.

I'd guess St. Pete is in a similar situation to most of Florida's downtown. Vastly improved and getting better everyday, but not quite there yet.

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I'd guess St. Pete is in a similar situation to most of Florida's downtown. Vastly improved and getting better everyday, but not quite there yet.

Exactly. Downtown still has a LONG way to go, IMO.

But rated among the "best SMALL cities"?? What constitutes a "small" city? :huh:

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