ST. PETERSBURG — Local leaders and artists on Tuesday unveiled a renovated Crislip Arcade downtown that will soon house eight art galleries.
The arcade was "a dump" before the owner, with city help, decided to transform it into an artists colony, said City Council Chairwoman Leslie Curran.
"I'm sorry," she told about 200 people gathered outside the arcade Tuesday morning. "I'm being nice about that."
The historic spot at 645 Central Ave. has come a long way from being filled floor-to-ceiling with forgotten furniture and damaged by the city's homeless and vandals.
Guests walked through the hallway after the ceremony, admiring the Cuban floor tiles, tall ceilings decked with iron chandeliers and a huge iron gate waiting to be installed in the front and back entrances.
The 600 block of Central had fallen on hard times after the real estate boom went bust. Plans for condos forced out small businesses, but the real estate implosion left a string of empty store fronts.
"It was never this beautiful," said Phyllis Eig, a wedding planner who moved here in the 1960s. "It's hard to remember because this has been nothing for so many years."
The arcade's facelift and the 600 block is part of a larger revamping of Central Avenue storefronts from Beach Drive to 16th Street N.
Officials said the arcade will revitalize local arts. The property owner rents out the space at a reduced price, leaving the tenant in charge of sprucing up the place.
Fourteen spaces along the block were also available for leasing, Curran said. She was flooded with phone calls and has a waiting list of about 150 people.
Mayor Bill Foster, wearing a white Rays jersey, said work still needs to be done to fill in the gaps from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Street to 16th Street N.
Built in 1926, the arcade's heyday lasted about 30 years. The open-air, covered hallway with a string of small retails shops on either side was the style of the city's 10 similar shopping venues.
The advent of malls and air-conditioned spaces would lure shoppers away from downtown. The arcade, one of three remaining in St. Petersburg, languished ever since.
Most owners on the block left their businesses in 2006, when a developer bought the property for $2.3 million with intentions of tearing the building down for a $35 million condominium. Then the boom went bust.
In 2008, Thomas Gaffney, of Oldsmar Land Holding Company, bought the property for $2.3 million. He told the City Council he didn't have any plans for the space last spring, so Curran persuaded him to adopt her vision for an artist colony.
It would have never happened without his willingness to rent it out for a few years, Curran said.
Gaffney was modest.
"The money that was spent here was the easy part," he said.
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