By Peyton Jones, Ph. D.
While the term “Bay Plaza” means little to most residents, here at Preserve the 'Burg, those words evoke bittersweet memories.
In 1986, the city of St. Petersburg hired a national real estate conglomerate to serve as the city’s Master Builder and oversee the development of Bay Plaza, a $200 million downtown redevelopment project. With a sprawling shopping and commercial district linked to mid-city by a 3-block-wide pedestrian green along Central Ave., the ambitious Bay Plaza plan envisioned St. Petersburg as the retail and entertainment hub of South-Central Florida.
But Bay Plaza never came to fruition. An economic downturn in the early 1990s ultimately doomed the project, but not before the demolition of several iconic historic structures, most notably the Soreno Hotel, built in 1924.
When the Bay Plaza project folded for good, in 1996, the developers left behind acres of vacant lots and empty retail spaces, bitter business owners, millions of dollars in unpaid debts, and a galvanized historic preservation movement.
Over the next few weeks, we are going to revisit the history of Bay Plaza in greater depth. The 1980s marked the dawn of a new era of metropolitan growth politics, when civic leaders who had lost faith in the ability of democratically elected governments to solve urban problems, entrusted the city’s economic future to private enterprise and unregulated markets.
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