A recent story on this website by Andrew Harlan highlighted the work of a Twitter user Shane, AKA @CubanBread who used AI to create renderings of what St. Pete would look like if cars were eliminated from a few key strips of restaurants and retail. In this imagined world, diners along Central Avenue can smell their food rather than a mixture of exhaust and antifreeze. And they don’t have to watch nervously as a car parks at a meter three feet from their knees.
The comments on this concept revealed a wide array of opinions. Many enjoyed seeing something they’ve been hoping would happen for years. Many of those against the idea, however, were apoplectic at the loss of parking space in favor of people space. Some lamented the loss of car travel downtown: “Yes take away one lane each on the 2 most important roads in downtown then completely shut down the one between them. I’m done with this place. Trendy fad hell hole.” To the alarmist: “yeah also envision death by dehydration and stroke!!! “ To the conspiracy-minded: “they want you to ultimately use public transportation. So they can control where and when you go.”
But I have good news for all of those concerned about parking, weather, and personal freedoms. Did you know that there are more than 25,000 off-street parking spaces downtown? This is according to those Downtown Guidemaps that are available in just about every lobby and news rack in town.
The best part about this off-street parking: it’s right in the thick of things and it’s cheaper than the street meters. The Sundial Garage (2nd Street between 1st Ave and 2nd Ave North) boasts over 1,295 spaces. The first hour is FREE and every hour after that is $1. After 5 pm it’s even cheaper, with four hours going for $1. Floors 2 and 4 have electric vehicle charging stations!
A stone’s throw from there, is the Southcore Garage on 1st Ave South and Beach Drive on the back of the James Museum. It also has over 1,100 spaces. The pricing here is similar to the Sundial. Got a dollar?
Both of these garages have cash and credit methods of payment. You can park in these garages in fewer turns than it takes to circle the block seven times looking for a more pricey meter in front of Five Bucks Drinkery. And except for the rooftops, these parking garages offer all day shade.
Hate parking garages? Have a tall vehicle that won’t fit? The parking lot at Al Lang Stadium has 328 spaces at $5 for the entire day. If you’re visiting further down Central, past 6th Street, there are 64 spaces in the lot across from City Hall available after 6, and almost 300 more spaces at 8th Street and 1st Ave South that go for a mere $3.
Creating pedestrian-friendly walkways downtown is still feasible for drivers
I just listed more than 3,000 spaces between Beach and MLK, none of which will cost you more than $5. Between 2nd and 3rd Street, Central has less than 20 spaces on the north side of the street. Let’s face it, those spaces are always full. We don’t need to wonder what will happen if Central is closed to pedestrians here because we already know.
First Friday closed this stretch for decades on our busiest nights. Street dining during COVID and the common loss of these spaces for valet parking and construction dumpsters has only proven we can live without them. But removing cars would make this area so much more pleasant.
I’ll concede that closing Central at 6th Street requires some planning, particularly during the day when businesses rely on these spaces for customers to dash in and out. It’s easy to come up with an artistic rendering and fill it with people who didn’t have to park. In this stretch there are fewer than 40 spaces per block, so the vast majority of patrons are not parking on Central.
I’m reminded of an eight block stretch of Main Street in Charlottesville, VA. It closed in 1976 and is one of the earliest and longest streets converted to pedestrian use in the country. The plan had its detractors, but the lack of cars made a destination for cafes, boutiques, bookstores, and galleries and they’ve never looked back.
The question isn’t whether it can work, it’s whether we have the imagination to make it work.
Downtown parking options abound
No solution is without its drawbacks. Yes, the chances of parking right in front of Craft Kafe would go from almost zero to zero. And people who have mobility issues might face a longer walk from a parking garage to their destination—this assuming they were lucky enough to snag a street space to begin with.
But the distance from a parking garage is not automatically further than an open street space, so this scenario neglects the fact that the walk is only further if you’re lucky to get a good space. Another way around this issue is to park in one of the 500 spaces at the Pier which has a stop for the handicapped accessible Downtown Looper and Central Avenue Trolley.
Another benefit of the pedestrian street concept for those with mobility concerns is that opening the street to pedestrians reduces congestion on the original sidewalk where outdoor restaurant seating has created a bit of an obstacle course. With all the tables and chairs, balcony posts, foot traffic, and restaurant workers dashing in and out, the stretch from Mastry’s to 3rd Street isn’t exactly wheelchair friendly territory.
The reality is, no one is using Central downtown to get anywhere. Just about everyone has arrived and is looking for a parking space. But don’t just take my word for it. Renowned urban planner Jeff Speck makes a living getting paid to study individual cities to help solve their issues with urban design. He found that a significant portion of traffic in urban centers is from people circling for parking—from 36 percent to a whopping 96 percent of traffic in one Los Angeles neighborhood. Think about that next time you inch down Central from 4th Street to MLK while bikes and walkers pass you.
Throw on that turn signal. Turn off Central and park in a garage or one of the big surface lots. It’s cheaper, it’s shaded, and there’s a guaranteed spot waiting for you. You’ll never get a parking ticket again.