St. Petersburg dismantles Old Town Square dining hall, suitable for COVID
A local restaurateur said the old food court was vital for the visibility of the old town, while a manager of a downtown business group said the district’s main street should not be closed.
PETERSBURG – Ernie LaBrecque leaned against the facade of his Beaunuts restaurant on Monday morning and looked at where, until a few hours earlier, Old Towne Square had been.
While as a business owner of Old Towne he claimed to be neutral, as a citizen LaBrecque said he hated to see the place disappear because it increased the visibility of Old Towne.
“It’s a disappointment,” he said.
At around 6 a.m., Petersburg public works crews began dismantling barricades and removing picnic tables from a section of North Sycamore Street between Bank and Bollingbrook streets which was an outdoor dining hall in due to the pandemic in the past 15 months. For the first time since May 2020, cars passed unhindered in this block.
Because Monday’s daytime temperature was expected in the 90s, the decision was made to support withdrawal early, according to a message from Petersburg city spokeswoman Joanne Williams. After dismantling the barricades and removing the forty or so picnic tables, the teams cleaned up the street.
The colorful barricades and Road Closed signs were first placed on a vacant lot next to DJ’s Rajun Cajun restaurant. Williams said crews need to return later today to pick them up.
Last month, City Manager Stuart Turille Jr. told City Council he would remove the square on August 9 because the statewide COVID-19 emergency order was lifted. The square opened on the assumption that once the pandemic subsided, the street would be reopened. He also said the street had to be reopened due to public safety concerns over reaching businesses and residents across the plaza.
Turille’s decision became a hot political issue, with supporters of the square ringing the bell at city council for not intervening and overturning Turille’s decision. Council maintained that the withdrawal was well within the authority of the city manager, just as its creation fell under former city manager Aretha Ferrell-Benavides who approved it as a state of emergency response.
“The COVID numbers are starting to go up, so I don’t see why they couldn’t have kept it up a bit longer until we can see how things go,” said KB LaBrecque, wife of ‘Ernie. She said she supported the permanent maintenance of the place.
Sergei Troubetzkoy, director of the Main Street Petersburg business group and former Petersburg tourism manager years ago, was one of those who supported the city manager’s decision.
“I am happy to see the street reopened,” Troubetzkoy said. “It certainly served his purpose.”
Troubetzkoy said he wasn’t against the idea of Old Towne Square, “but you don’t want to close a main street” for having it. His group asked for a $ 100,000 economic development grant – which Turille said he supports – that would fund the development of a downtown master plan that could also include the creation of a restaurant and from an off-street entertainment venue.
Troubetzkoy said the MSP had just filed the necessary documents in the past few days and expects to hear a decision on this by September. He said he hoped for full funding for the grant, but whatever the grant, the city should match.
Ernie LaBrecque said many Old Towne business owners he spoke to were willing to pay the cost to make the place look better, but the city turned them down. As for a possible relocation of the plaza to an off-street location, he argued that the location on Sycamore Street made more sense than any other location such as the paved area that surrounds the farmer’s market building.
“It would be like buying your food at [downtown outdoor] mall in Charlottesville, then get to UVA to eat it, ”LaBrecque lamented.
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Veteran reporter Bill Atkinson (he / him / her) is the Regional Daily News Coach for the United Central Group of the Southeastern Region of the USA TODAY Network, which includes Virginia, West Virginia and parts of Carolina North. He is based at the Progress-Index in Petersburg, Virginia. Contact Bill at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter at @BAtkinson_PI.