Aviles Street rebounds after rehabilitation

Despite a tough economy, business is booming on the nation’s oldest public street, said Jeff Norton, owner of Madre’s Restaurant on Aviles Street and president of the Aviles Merchants Association.  The street is lined with shops, galleries and restaurants. On Friday afternoon, dozens of people swirled in and out of stores and dined casually at the cafe tables located on the sidewalk. “This is really the place people want to be in St. Augustine,” Norton said. “It’s the center of the universe, as far as we’re concerned.”

It wasn’t that way just two years ago. The street, which dates to 1573, had fallen into disrepair over the years. And as most of the foot traffic in St. Augustine tended to stay north of King Street, the businesses on Aviles Street languished. The City of St. Augustine remedied that last year with a $200,000 renovation project that made it much more attractive to tourists and locals alike, Norton said.The shops, art galleries and restaurants on Aviles were instantly enhanced by the improvements, which included new street lighting and a refreshed brick street. The addition of outdoor dining pumped new life into the street, and pedestrians got a wider, more secure walking area, too.

“The Aviles community of businesses is thriving,” Norton said. “We’re grateful for the renovation project — it really has resuscitated the place.”  City manager John Regan is enthusiastic about the results.

“The sense of community, and sense of place that’s going on here on Aviles is fantastic,” Regan said, walking along the quaint brick street, stopping to say hello to business owners along the way. “Before the project, we had a decrepit, broken down street. Now we have a successful business district that’s attractive and full of history.”

Ginny Bullard at Amiro Art & FoundGinny Bullard, an artist and one of the owner partners of Amiro Art & Found, an art gallery on Avilez, called the revitalization of the street “absolutely fabulous. People all over town rave about this street now,” Bullard said. “It’s definitely been an overwhelming success.” Bullard has lived in St. Augustine for more than 20 years, and remembers the way the street was before.  “We would not have chosen this location if it had remained in the condition it was in,” she said. “But now it’s beautiful, and people are rediscovering it.”

Regan said the biggest challenge was getting people to “cross the road,” referring to King Street. “Naturally, people are drawn to the St. George Street shops on the north side of King Street,” Regan said. “King Street was acting as a psychological curtain, directing people that way. We wanted to find a way to get people over here.”

The way the city did that, Regan said, was by making parking available, through a partnership with Trinity Episcopal Church, which owns a lot on Artillery Lane. That connects Aviles Street with St. George Street.  We’ve done our best with signage to make that lot an attractive option from King Street,” he said, pointing to the large blue “P” sign on the corner. “I’m willing to bet the pedestrian traffic has increased manyfold since we made that lot available. And that’s the key.”

As two young women exited the lot and walked north onto St. George Street, Regan flagged them down and asked them what prompted them to park there. Sure enough, it was the “P” sign, they said.  ‘Model of things to come’  Regan introduced himself and offered to show the women, who were visiting St. Augustine for the first time, “a beautiful historic street,” leading them to Aviles.

“This is beautiful,” said Patti Fowler, of Scranton, Pa., one of the women. “I would never have even known this was here. It’s like a European street.”

Laura Kohrs owns Natural Reflections Glass Gallery at the end of Aviles along with her husband Kristian.  “We’re so proud and happy to be a part of this street,” Kohrs said. “And business has really picked up over here since the renovations. It has kept us alive, definitely. “It’s not perfect, though, she said.  “Right now, there are still more slow months than busy months, but it’s improving all the time,” she said. “The merchant association is trying to bring more locals down to Aviles Street. We’re proud of the festivals and have many other events in mind for the future.”

Regan called the success of the Aviles Street project “a model for things to come” in the nation’s oldest city, and said other city streets, such as Spanish Street, could be similarly revitalized in the near future. “The psychology of Aviles is unique,” Regan said. “There’s a strong unity here, and an elevated sense of empowerment among the merchants.”  Norton agreed. “We’re all in this together,” he said, referring to his fellow business owners on the street. “We all know each other, and we all want to grow the pie.”

Aviles Street has been a street since the late sixteenth century, and it is listed on the city’s 1573 town plan, which makes it the oldest public street in the U.S., according to Carl Halbirt, the city’s archaeologist.  The street was named for the hometown in Spain of St. Augustine’s founder, Pedro Menendez. Aviles, Spain is the sister city of St. Augustine.  Two museums anchor the street, the Spanish Military Hospital on the north end and the Father O’Reilly House Museum toward the south end.

By Douglas Jordan
Special to The Record

Irene Arriola Real Estate, Inc.
81 King Street, Suite B Saint Augustine, FL 32084
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