Just a few blocks west of downtown St. Petersburg, the Grand Central District offers an eclectic mix of nostalgic charm and bohemian vibe
BY CATHY SALUSTRI
Live Local! Contributor
That art supply shop? It used to be a radio station. The lawyer’s office? It was a nightclub. The Topper Bar Nightclub, to be precise. The Rockholm Hotel at 2510 Central? Long gone.
Few nightclubs remain. The area is teetering on the edge of a rental waiting list for new businesses, an area Southern Living magazine showcased as part of its “Next Great Neighborhoods” feature.
From sunrise to well after sunset, Grand Central District, stretching mostly along Central Avenue just a few blocks west of downtown St Petersburg, offers diversions for shoppers and diners from all walks of life.
Have chicken sausage on a bun at Jimbo’s Joint (3063 Central), and homemade gelato at TropicCool (2246 Central), sip a cafe con leche while you enjoy local art at Creative Souls (2425 Central) or the Craftsman House (2955 Central), or visit Haslam’s Bookstore (2025 Central) and find a literary treasure to read while you enjoy a heaping plate of camerones at Casita Taqueria (2663 Central), burritos at Taco Bus (234 Central) or a healthy veggie wrap at Community Cafe (2444 Central).
After lunch, find art that you can wear at Necessories Gallery & Boutique (2057 Central), candles and lotions at Shannon’s Web (2454 Central), and repurposed antiques and collectibles at Central Oddities (2055 Central) or ARTpool Gallery (2030 Central).
Wind down with a local brew at the Sly Bar (2061 Central) or Hideaway Cafe (1756 Central), find your inner artist at Painting with a Twist (2527 Central), get treated at St. Pete Community Acupuncture (1624 Central) or have dinner at any number of places in the district: Urban Brew & BBQ (1939 Central), Engine Rose (2901 Central), Queens Head (2501 Central) and Nittally’s Thai-Mex (2462 Central), Cappy’s Pizza (2900 First Ave N), Leafy Greens Cafe (1626 Central), Old Key West Bar & Grill (2451 Central), The Burg Bar & Grill (1752 Central) or Pom Pom’s Teahouse (2451 Central), just to name a few.
That’s a typical day for a visitor along St. Petersburg’s Grand Central, which spans from 16th to 31st streets along Central Avenue, First Avenue North and First Avenue South.
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Things along the Grand Central District sure have changed since 1928, and the neighborhood is honoring the past as it looks towards the future. Jon Tallon, board member for the Grand Central District Association, says Grand Central’s history is a draw for locals and tourists.
“We have people who are moving in from other areas interested in what this was before,” says Tallon, who is also marketing manager for nearby Florida Print Solutions.
The district’s oldest store by far is Haslam’s, which opened in 1933, during the Depression, to offer readers used books and magazines at bargain prices. The shop has since grown to be Florida’s largest bookstore, hosting frequent author signings and covering 30,000 square feet with more than 300,000 books.
Just a few blocks away is Shannon’s Web, one of the newer business owners in the area. Owner Shannon Kelly says her shop, which features locally crafted items including candles, gifts, art and home decor, fits in with the neighborhood feel of the district.
“We have a great community vibe that I don’t always feel when I’m downtown,” she says, adding that plans are in the works to revitalize the sidewalks and spruce up the streets. “I’m excited to see the change come to an area that some viewed as worn down and neglected.”
These days, Grand Central is far from neglected. Today, the vibrant shopping and eating district has a low-key, artsy, homey feel. It feels like a modern day main street and that, according to Grand Central District Association executive director Lauren Ruiz, is no accident.
“Our vision is to grow and maintain the community that was envisioned in 1999,” Ruiz says, referring to the Central Avenue Tomorrow Plan created by local business owners and Kenwood residents almost 16 years ago. In that plan, they laid out their hopes for a safe, walkable community that included businesses and homes that had a distinct identity. The Grand Central District Association was born.
Soon after, the district joined forces with the Florida Main Street Program, a state program that focuses on economic vitality of business communities in need. As a designated Main Street community, the district gets a city grant to fund a full-time Main Street manager. The rest of the organization is comprised of local business owners who serve on the volunteer board of directors.
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Grand Central District is the home of St. Petersburg’s first net zero energy, fully self-sustaining commercial office building, which opened in December 2012 in the 19oo block of Central Avenue. The building houses Sierra Club’s state headquarters and a shared space for Big Sea Design and Roundhouse Creative Studio.
The district and the adjoining historic Kenwood Neighborhood Association host several events, including porch parties, home tours, pub crawls, block parties and antique markets, plus the annual chili cookoff and Oktoberfest.
By far one of the biggest events is the St. Pete Pride parade, which draws more than 100,000 people every year. The illuminated night parade, with floats representing more than 150 organizations and businesses that want to show their support for Tampa Bay’s gay community, is the largest LGBT Pride parade in the state. The day after the parade the Pride celebration continues and the district welcomes more than 300 vendors and more than 100,000 guests for the Pride block party.
In keeping with the spirit of openness and acceptance, Grand Central is also home to Tampa Bay’s only LGBT Welcome Center, which provides meeting and event space, a safe space for youth, diversity training and more. The center, at 2227 Central, is the third of its kind in the United States; the other two are in Miami and Seattle. The center is a project of Metro Wellness Centers, a nonprofit organization that offers health and fitness programs, substance-abuse programs, HIV services and medical care, social activities, free HIV testing and more.
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Tallon believes history gives Grand Central an edge other neighborhoods might not have.
“When you have layered history in your area, it’s a good commodity to traffic in,” says Tallon, who has an MLA degree in Florida studies and offers walking tours to help educate visitors and locals about Grand Central’s history. He paints a picture of how Grand Central once looked as he leads the tours using city guides from the 1920s to unearth what used to be along the tree-lined swath of Central Avenue.
By highlighting Grand Central’s history, these tours show what make makes the area unique, and even as new businesses open and some of the older ones close, that sense of place will stay with people and draw them back to the district.
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Sustainable development is crucial for economic competitiveness, according to Donovan Rypkema, creator of Place Economics, a Washington, DC-based consulting firm that specializes in downtown and neighborhood commercial district revitalization and the re-use of historic structures.. “Historic preservation is, in and of itself, sustainable development,” he often says when he talks about growth.
“Quality of life is fragile,” he explains further in his speeches and in his writing. “Things that make up any community’s quality of life need to be identified, enhanced and protected. Resurrecting the older character and history of places requires vision, blending old with new and an appreciation that place character is a valuable asset in retaining firms and people, and in attracting new investment and businesses.”
Grand Central has that vision, and Ruiz says the district honors its past as businesses also look toward the future: “In five years, I see the district being even more vibrant than it is now, as more commercial vacancies are filled, and upcoming residential projects are completed.”
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Tallon likens history in places like the Grand Central District to Tampa and Boca Ciega bays:
“The water doesn’t move very fast. You’ve got to know where to look for it.”
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