Thursday, October 08, 2009

No Private Sidewalks in St. Pete

On October 1st, the St. Petersburg City Council voted against a plan to privatize the public sidewalk in front of the BayWalk downtown shopping center, marking a victory for civil liberties advocates who have worked to protect the time-honored right to free speech in the town square.

Part of the proposed "City of St. Petersburg BayWalk Revitalization Plan," the donation of the sidewalk to the owner of the complex was intended to allow management to exclude people who engage in First Amendment activities such as free assembly and free speech. In August, the ACLU of Florida wrote a letter to Mayor Rick Baker and City Council Chair Jeff Danner, urging them to oppose the proposed donation, pointing out that it would not only be against the best interests of citizens, but it would not accomplish the stated goal of excluding people who use the sidewalk for expressive purposes because of constitutional precedent making city sidewalks traditional public forums.

Showing that the public was not behind the proposal, over 150 people attended Thursday's City Council meeting to voice their opposition to giving away public property and stifling St. Petersburg residents' free speech rights. "We are very happy that the council rejected the idea that the First Amendment is bad for business," said ACLU of Florida Senior Attorney and Religious Freedom Project Director Glenn Katon. "Free speech is far too precious to give away in order to try to drum up business at a struggling shopping center. There are plenty of things the City can do to improve the BayWalk area without trampling on the Constitution."

The decision came at the conclusion of almost four hours of public commentary by local citizens, proving the efforts of residents to protect their constitutional rights can pay off. As the largest civil liberties organization in the state, the ACLU opposed the plan for both practical and legal reasons and strongly supported local residents in their resistance against this proposal. Among those who spoke eloquently against the proposal were Pinellas chapter members Ray Arsenault, Mark Kamleiter, Dwight Lawton, and Nigel Watson.

Not everyone was in support of the ACLU's position. A St. Petersburg Times column after the vote advocated for business interests and against the Constitution, stating: "When BayWalk is boarded up and completes its transformation from downtown St. Petersburg's jewel to its biggest eyesore, we will know whom to blame," referring to the four Council members who voted against the sidewalk giveaway.

"It is just plain wrong to assume that BayWalk's woes are due to a few protestors who have used the area to voice their opinion over the years." added Katon. The worst economic crisis of the last 50 years and acknowledged mismanagement of the complex are the more likely culprits. In fact, there were about a dozen protests at BayWalk in 2009 and only a couple during 2009. "Free speech is not what is hampering the success of BayWalk. There haven't been protests for some time and yet the shopping complex is not bustling with shoppers," Katon noted.

Glenn Katon,Senior Attorney and Director, Religious Freedom Project,American Civil Liberties Union of Florida


  1. St. Petersburg Times:
    A Times Editorial
    BayWalk gets new chance

    In Print: Friday, October 9, 2009

    St. Petersburg City Council members Jeff Danner and Herb Polson acted responsibly Thursday to revive the discussion over the future of the failing BayWalk retail complex. Their actions bought another week to find a different solution to guaranteeing customers' access to the complex — or to persuade another council member to vote to vacate the sidewalk where crowds of teens and protesters once gathered.

    Since the City Council's tie vote last week killed the request by BayWalk's owners to vacate the sidewalk, the fallout has been severe and predictable. One downtown restaurant closed and cited BayWalk's demise as the reason. Some of BayWalk's few remaining tenants said they cannot hang on any longer. The operators of the city's only movie complex sounded ready to close, and prospective new tenants indicated they will not sign leases.

    Danner on Thursday pushed for more talks among the city, BayWalk owners and others to find another option besides vacating the sidewalk. It's hard to imagine what that might be, but talking about options is far better than seeing BayWalk boarded up. Polson then reasonably moved to reconsider the sidewalk vacation, so the issue remains alive.

    Unfortunately, the two other council members who voted last week with Danner and Polson to kill the sidewalk vacation still don't get it. Wengay Newton remains confused about free speech concerns, when Second Avenue N and the sidewalk across the street from BayWalk would remain public. Leslie Curran read a long list of other downtown businesses that have closed and complained the city did not help them. If BayWalk closes because of the city's inaction, exactly how does that help other downtown businesses —including Curran's art gallery?

    Last week, the City Council deadlocked over the BayWalk sidewalk vacation and doomed the complex to failure. This week, Danner and Polson were willing to give the situation another look. Maybe next week, the council will get it right.

  2. "Leslie Curran read a long list of other downtown businesses that have closed and complained the city did not help them."

    what a joke is not a local governments job to save business from is not a citys fault that business owners are poor management and business decisions.

    Good business people survive tough times...Poor business people blame everyone else.