St. Petersburg: New Shops Revive Crislip Arcade

In 2005, the Crislip Arcade, on the 600 block of downtown's Central Avenue, was a snapshot of the national real estate boom -- an aging urban block of small business emptied to make way for a massive, mixed-use tower.

By 2007, the Crislip symbolized a different reality. The developers had sold. The tower was forgotten. And the empty block was a glaring gap in the middle of this town's bustling main drag.

Jump to 2010 and the Crislip Arcade represents today's new economy amid a burgeoning block of artists' studios and creative businesses blossoming in a "smaller is better" world.

How it all happened was the main topic of conversation in early May as hundreds of revelers showed up for a Saturday night block party celebrating the rebirth of the historic arcade, a relic of the 1920s when shopping blocks were built around long central corridors shaded from the sun. The Crislip is one of three remaining arcades in St. Petersburg.

Bob Devin Jones, artistic director of the Studio@620, a downtown performance and gallery space, sat stoically in his new digs – the Studio@620 Annex.  The 12 dozen chocolate cookies he had baked for the grand opening were long devoured. The storefront was packed with artists and photographers, members of the tattoo and indie rock crowd, city officials, curious locals and aging art lovers.

Devin Jones, who fits somewhere in the middle of those descriptions, said he hopes the arcade, with small creative businesses alongside bars and retail outlets, will become a "third place" that is something between work and home.

The Studio will use the Annex for poetry, performance, art shows and art-oriented retail. After months of planning and discussion, the Annex project ended in a whirlwind of paperwork and last-minute details.

"I'm not sure how we did it," he says. "But we pulled this whole thing together in a week and a half."

Indeed, many folks in St. Petersburg aren't sure how the idea of reopening a vacant block of historic storefronts actually happened.

It took an energized arts community, a city council member who knows the gallery business, a willing landlord, the cooperation of the city building and code departments and, perhaps the most important factor, the real estate crash.
It's a much more realistic world, says Bob Glaser, CEO of Smith & Associates, a real estate firm. Glaser, who came for the party, was not involved in the real estate project.

"People are starting to own property at the right price range – (rents) are almost equal to the debt service," he says.  "There are probably other sites in the bay area that would qualify."

Tom Gaffney, head of Oldsmar Land Holding Corp., bought the Crislip after the market declined. He had planned to hold the property until the market turned. City Council Chair Leslie Curran, who owns Interior Motives Gallery on Central, approached him about letting the city clean up the property and offering some storefronts to artists. Over the last year, that conversation morphed into a small-scale renovation and rents that average $8 to $10 per square foot.

At the block party, Gaffney stopped into the Studio@620 Annex to congratulate Devin Jones. He didn't want to take credit for the renovation – though he had put up an undisclosed sum toward the improvements, including a beautiful wrought-iron gate for the arcade.

"It's the people who are here, not me," Gaffney said. "I just put some money into it. They did it."

An Eclectic Mix Of Businesses

Those people are artists, designers, filmmakers, marketers and fashion retailers. The names of the businesses along the block tell the story: Gallery Woo, Kimberly White Gallery, Rex A Million Gallery, MQC Fine Art Gallery, Croatian Naive Art Gallery, Vivian Knot Thompson Studio and Gallery, Art on Central, Elwell Gallery, All Sewn Up Boutique, Misred Outfitters, Dazzio Art Experience, Donna Gordon Gallery & Studio, Robinson Brand Builders, The Sebastian Thomas Gallery, The Department – Design, Branding, Environment, Vitale Art Studio, Blue Lucy, Sleeperwoods, Rhino Film Studios, Studio@620 Annex,  and 1 of 1 Customs.

The new stores and galleries are a nice fit with the nearby streetscape. Two bars, Stevie B's Total Guitar, Foolish Pride Tattoos and Daddy Kool Records are open across the street. A few steps west is the State Theatre, featuring concerts by bands as different as Cannibal Corpse and The Wailers.

Curran surveyed the block party from the middle of Central Avenue.

 "This is a great example of how you can rehab what you have and improve a downtown area," says Curran.
With the success of the Crislip revitalization, she wants to work with property owners and city officials to keep moving west and south.

"What I'm hoping to do now is go up Central to 22nd and go south," connecting to other clusters of art projects like Creative Clay and Duncan McClellen's new glass studio, she says.

The 600 block had been a home to antique shops, used furniture stores and other small businesses until 2005, when the landlord gave everyone 30 days to vacate to make room for a new tower.
New Economy Spurs Creative Partnerships

Carla Wenzel  was one of those business owners. Her home improvement business was ousted in 2005 with 30 days notice.

"It's bittersweet. But I love that it is back," and better than it was since in its earlier incarnation—the building was "rustic" at best, she says.

The mash-up of all these creative businesses is spawning some unforeseen collaborations.  Less than a week after the block party, Carol and Ken Meles, owners of Sleeperwoods, a boutique featuring wooden crafts from Africa, watched as John Vitale, of Vitale Art Studios, smoothed the lettering of their logo onto the glass front door.
Vitale is doing some signage for other tenants. Both Vitale and the Meles say the rent and location made their decision to open at Crislip a no-brainer.

"I made the rent on Saturday night," Carol Meles says.
Vitale said the end of the month wasn't scary at the Crislip, even for an artist.

"When the rent is due, it's OK. You can make it."

Paul Wilborn, a St. Petersburg-based pianist and singer, is executive director of the Palladium Theater at St. Petersburg College. He and his wife, Actor and Acting Teacher Eugenie Bondurant, are renovating a 1913 home in the historic Old Southeast, a waterfront neighborhood.. Comments? Contact 83 Degrees.

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