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Two Tampa Bay developers teach a lesson: old schools can be turned into new uses

By Susan Taylor Martin
A living and kitchen area of one of the 16 apartments soon to be leased as renovation of the former Euclid School in St. Petersburg comes to an end. This apartment has an arched brick wall that was part of breezeway that has since been enclosed. . {SCOTT KEELER | Times]

ST. PETERSBURG — Once, the classrooms were filled with little boys and girls, hunched over wooden desks as they read from Dick and Jane or laboriously practiced their cursive.

Soon, those rooms will be filled again — this time with renters hauling in sofas or title agents thumbing through stacks of real estate documents.

In a happy coincidence of timing, renovations of two historic St. Petersburg elementary schools — Euclid and North Ward — are finishing this month, breathing new life into solid old buildings that might otherwise might have been replaced by cookie cutter houses or frozen yogurt stores. Euclid is being reborn as loft-style apartments; North Ward as a Mexican restaurant, title company and wine shop.

"Here are two great examples of putting school buildings back into use," says Peter Belmont, vice president of St. Petersburg Preservation. "It’s ironic, because we have a lot of success reusing buildings from the past but it’s always a battle when you look at them property by property."

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: Developer turning old St. Petersburg school into restaurant, shops

Built in the early 1900s, both school were beloved neighborhood institutions until the neighborhoods changed along with needs of the school system. In 2013, the Pinellas County School Board voted to sell its property in the Euclid-St. Paul area a few miles northwest of downtown St. Petersburg.

A two-story, red-brick building in neighborhood of one-story bungalows, the Euclid school had also served as a storage center, special education school and administrative offices before finally closing in the 1980s. The board sold the property for $500,000 to a Tampa group, which flipped it six months later for a hefty profit -- Domain Homes paid $535,000 for a field behind the school where it has since put up eight houses, and developer Michael Mincberg paid $300,000 for the school building itself.

From Washington D.C., Mincberg had come to the bay area to attend the University of South Florida. He worked as bartender in Ybor City before going into real estate and befriending several professional athletes, young like himself, but with a lot more money to invest.

"I wasn’t hanging around with 50-year-old doctors," says Mincberg, 33. "I had a lot more in common with these guys."

With a $1.4 million investment from outfielder Matt Joyce, then with the Tampa Bay Rays, Mincberg converted the former school into 14 apartments, 12 with one bedroom and four with two bedrooms.

All of the apartments have the high ceilings and tall windows common to Florida schools built in the days before air-conditioning. That gives them a much larger, airier feel than what their 600- to 1,300-square-foot size would suggest. Many have their original wood floors. The ground-level apartments in front, where a breezeway was enclosed, retain the original arched brick walls. Mincberg reused as many of the original doors as possible.

"Structurally, it was in good condition because the county did maintain it," he says of the school built in 1924. "We tried to keep it as much original as possible and the new we put in, we wanted to keep understated."

For that reason, the walls, kitchen cabinets and bathroom fixtures are white (although front doors are painted black with chalkboard paint in homage to the building’s past.) For fire safety reasons, Mincberg had to remove an iron gate at the top of the center stairwell and install sprinklers. The pipes, though, were left exposed, adding to the industrial look of the apartments.

Leasing starts this month, with prices ranging from $1,200 to $1,700. Mincberg expects the apartments to rent quickly, just as they did in other old buildings he’s renovated.

"It’s the uniqueness," he says. " So much of real estate today has a lack of character. There are people who prefer non-amenitized places and there is such a small volume of these, they lease up fast."

Mincberg’s Sight Real Estate and St. Petersburg Preservation successfully pressed to have the Euclid School designated a local landmark, a status that requires a review process before a structure can be demolished or significant changes made to the exterior. Landmark status also entitles a building to sizable relief on property taxes: For 10 years, the school will be taxed on its pre-renovation value of less than $300,000.

A year after unloading Euclid, the school board decided to sell the long-vacant North Ward school in St. Petersburg’s Old Northeast.

This time, St. Petersburg Preservation and the local neighborhood association battled in vain to have the building designated a landmark. The school board adamantly opposed that, fearing restrictions on the property would sharply reduce the sale price. But the school was saved anyway — in 2014, the board sold it for $1.7 million to developer Jonathan Daou, who also considered landmark status too burdensome.

"I didn’t want to have to clean it with a soft bristle toothbrush," he jokes of the mission-style school built in 1914.

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Daou estimates he’s spent another $2.3 million on renovations, which include a new addition fronting busy Fourth Street North where a Mexican restaurant, La Hacienda, will go. The only significant structural change to the original building was reducing the number of bathrooms from four to two. That added some leasable floor space with windows. Daou also had to put in a fire door.

Tampa-based Majesty Title Services, which wanted an office near but not in downtown St. Petersburg, is taking about 1,400 square feet on the second floor.

"It’s great parking, historic, great size rooms in there and the way the developer anticipates finishing with beautifully restored floors, everything comes together nicely,’’ says Vince Cassidy, Majesty’s president.

Also occupying second floor space will be a wine shop and a meditation studio.

For the ground floor, Daou is in talks with a hair salon. He also wanted a speciality tea shop but has yet to sign a tenant.

In preserving the North Ward and Euclid schools, Daou and Mincberg have had their frustrations with the city, especially over delays in permitting. They are careful with any criticism because they have other projects in the works — Mincberg is renovating a 1920s building in the Warehouse Arts District into 10 apartments while Daou owns numerous properties in St. Petersburg’s trendy Edge District.

"If I’d known then what I know now, I would not have bought a single building that needed permitting,’’ is all Daou will say.

The North Ward project has dragged on long enough that the first restaurant interested in leasing bowed out. But Daou, an advocate of locally owned businesses, is pleased that its replacement is local and one of a kind.

Seeing North Ward through to the finish is a vindication of sorts for the 43-year-old Daou,who came to St. Petersburg by way of Manhattan and his native Lebanon. A few years ago, he generated huge excitement when he bought a vintage motel on Fourth Street North and announced he would convert it into a London- or New York-style food hall with local vendors and chefs. But he wrangled with the city over parking issues and ended up scraping the project.

That building has since been torn down. In its place will be a submarine sandwich shop, part of a chain with more than 1,300 locations.

Contact Susan Taylor Martin at [email protected] or (727) 893-8642. Follow @susanskate