By Janan Talafer, 83 Degrees Media
Once the city’s designated manufacturing area known as the Dome Industrial District, the St. Petersburg’s Warehouse Arts District is transforming itself as an emerging eclectic community of working artists and small industrial shops.
This is the place where “art is made.” It’s a popular stop on the trolley tour during the city’s Second Saturday Art Walk. An ever-growing number of painters, sculptures, glass artists, woodworkers and metalsmiths work and sometimes live in the neighborhood, which runs from 1st Avenue South to 10th Avenue South and 16th Street South to 31st Street South.
Deuces Live Main Street is an historic African American district centered on the 22nd Street South corridor that extends from 1st Avenue South to about 18th Avenue South. During the era of segregation, this was the African-American community’s “main street.”
In its heyday, the Deuces once housed more than 100 successful African-American-owned businesses, says Chuck Egerter, CEO of Eagle Datagistics and past President of the Deuces Live Main Street association.
Landmark venues such as the Manhattan Casino, Dr. Carter G. Woodson Museum, the historic Mercy Hospital and the Royal Theater are also located here. Legendary African-American jazz and blues musicians like Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington and Ray Charles, among others, played at the Manhattan Casino during the 1940s and ‘50s.
A joint community action plan
Last fall, the two districts agreed to move forward on a joint action plan to address areas of mutual interest. The goal is to tackle issues such as safety, accessibility and connection, as well create greater visibility and branding for the area. Brian Casper, economic development project manager for the City of St. Petersburg calls the project an “urban framework plan.”
“This is not about changing the character and unique identity of either district,” says Casper. “We want to preserve the area’s history and culture. We also don’t want to affect affordability for residents and businesses. But we do hope to capitalize on each district’s assets and make strategic improvements.”
A six-member committee with representatives from both districts has begun working with the city’s economic development team and two consulting firms -- Kisinger Camp & Associates, a Tampa engineering firm, and Community Solutions Group, a community planning consultant.
Important infrastructure elements on the table for discussion include lighting, streetscape character, signage and wayfinding, as well as safety concerns and the need for bike lanes and sidewalks for pedestrians. Additional issues range from zoning and use of public open spaces to better accessibility and connection with the rest of downtown, especially the Grand Central District.
“Right now we are in listen mode and asking for input and feedback,” says Casper. “It’s about giving people in the community a voice.”
A public kick-off for the project took place on November 30 followed by a trolley tour of the area the next day to give participants a close-up look at areas of concern or interest. In addition, an interactive website, was developed to allow users to leave comments and suggestions.
At the end of January, the team will present their findings, initial design ideas and early implementation strategies during a series of community workshops held at the St. Petersburg College Midtown Campus.
By early March, Casper expects the plan to be sufficiently “tweaked” to be ready for final presentation to the community, and then to go to city council for final approval. So far about $1 million has been set aside for the project, which Casper anticipates leveraging with grants and additional funding sources.
“We aren’t talking about residential neighborhood improvements, but about uplifting and stabilizing the area and envisioning what it could become, especially with the confluence of economic, cultural and creative forces that are happening here,” says Pete Sechler, senior Director of Community Solutions Group.
“Our job is to figure out what immediate action we can take that is meaningful, as opposed to big dramatic steps that could change the neighborhood and raise everyone’s property values,” says Sechler. “That is not what we want. We are taking small steps and shining a light on it. The question is what can we do to improve the infrastructure deficiencies and connect everything under a bigger umbrella to create a regional brand.”
A critical piece of the plan involves the intersection of 22nd Street South and 5th Avenue South -- a key intersection that both Deuces Live Main Street and the Warehouse Arts District claim as part of their respective districts.
The Pinellas Trail, a 47-mile linear park and recreational trail, runs diagonally through the intersection. The historic Seaboard Train Station, now the Morean Center for Clay, borders the trail and is just east of 5th Avenue South.
Other nearby landmarks include Three Daughters Brewing, a popular hang out and local craft brewer, and the pop-up vintage Brocante Market.
“5th Avenue South and 22nd Street South could be one of the coolest intersections in Florida,” says Sechler.
Sechler points to obvious challenges to overcome, including overgrown yards, empty lots, chain link fences and lack of sidewalks and lighting on the Pinellas Trail.
There are also breaks and disconnects between buildings and other structures that stop the flow of pedestrians and bicyclists, he says.
Wish List for the WAD
Better signage, landscaping, sidewalks, lighting and wayfinding are definitely needed for the Warehouse Arts District, says Mary Jane Park, Executive Director of the Warehouse Arts District.
“We want to make sure that we’re more accessible and friendly,” says Park. “This is an area that can be daunting right now. It’s not like International Plaza [in Tampa] where you can walk into a store and look at something. Our artists are in warehouses. Sometimes people aren’t sure whether it’s safe to go inside or whether the studio is open for visitors.”
Egerter presents an exciting vision of a rehabbed and transformed area that encompasses both the Warehouse Arts District and Deuces Live Main Street.
“I can see at some point in the future having someone walk down Central Avenue and turn south on 22nd Street,” he says. “From there they will find a line of shops, cafes and businesses that takes you all the way down to 15th Avenue South. It starts with a vision, one piece at a time. It’s like the Grand Central District revitalization -- 15 years ago everything was boarded up there and now look at it.”
Economic development opportunities
For Deuces Live Main Street, it’s not only about improving the streetscape. There’s also the need to bring more opportunity and jobs to the area.
“We want economic revitalization, but we want to it to be through holding onto the area’s cultural heritage -- the community’s stories, music, food and history,” says Egerter. “This is not about recreating the Deuces as an entertainment district. We also want accountants, doctors, lawyers and small companies. Our goal is to create a diverse eco-system so the people who live in this neighborhood will have more opportunity.”
The Warehouse Arts District is also looking at economic revitalization, but with a different focus -- making sure that improvements to the area don’t price artists out of the market, similar to what has taken place in areas like SoHo in New York and Wynwood in Miami, says Park.
To make sure that doesn’t happen, in 2014, the Warehouse Arts District closed on 2.7 acres of land along 22nd Street South between 5th and 6th Avenue. The property includes about 50,000-square feet of warehouse space in six buildings. The goal is to turn the development into a collection of affordable studios and artist galleries called the Arts Xchange.
Artist Mark Aeiling’s Mga Sculpture Studio is already located there. So is Soft Water Studios, the site of the old Soft Water Laundry, a former large commercial laundry that is now home to five artists, including painter Carrie Jadus.
Phase 1 of the Arts Xchange project is currently underway, says Park. Some 30 small studios are expected to be ready for occupancy in June. Artists in a variety of mediums, from painters and poets to 3D and virtual realty, have already been interviewed and selected for the space.