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Mayor Rick Baker makes case to close runway near USF St. Pete

St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Baker restated his case on Tuesday for a partial shutdown of the Albert Whitted Airport, a proposal that could impact the future development of USF St. Petersburg.

Baker, at a meeting of the Suncoast Tiger Bay Club in St. Pete’s Bayfront Center, said his plan, which involves the closing of the east-west runway at Albert Whitted, would benefit the city in at least four ways.

If the east-west runway, one of two runways at the airport, is closed, USF and the nearby All Children’s Hospital would become safer and be able to expand, Baker said.

“All Children’s Hospital and USF have very sincere safety issues at their property, like planes coming right over their buildings,” Baker said. “They also can’t develop their property at this point.”

Construction at USF has been limited by FAA restrictions on building height because of the adjacent Albert Whitted Airport, which serves small planes. At the fence separating USF and Albert Whitted’s east-west runway, USF cannot build higher than eight feet. Height restrictions in the other zones range from 58 feet in the area where the administration building lies to 108 and 158 feet at the periphery of the campus.

USF officials have openly supported the mayor’s proposal, citing the need for larger buildings to serve the needs of a growing campus.

Other boons to the city, Baker said, include six more acres for the port, a seven-acre waterfront park that would be open to the public and 23 acres that would be sold for $10-12 million, which would offset the cost to the city of the airport adopting a one-runway configuration.

Baker’s plan represents a compromise between those who want the airport to be expanded and the east-west runway expanded into Tampa Bay, and others who want the airport shut down entirely and the land put to other uses.

“I think the plan needs a chance (to be studied),” Baker said. “I know the airport advisers and supporters are in constant touch with the FAA on the issue. I intend to be in touch with the FAA.

“I think if it can work, it would be a reasonable solution for the city, and if it can’t, then we’ll just see where we go from here in terms of the airport as it is right now.”