Saturday, February 24, 2018
Business

Hotel tops wish list for downtown's long-vacant Tropicana block

ST. PETERSBURG

Dear Mr. Edwards: A downtown hotel would fit nicely on the long-stagnant Tropicana block that you recently bought. Please keep that in mind as you, or anyone else you might have sold it to, plans to develop this pivotal city block on Central Avenue. As for the design, an inviting streetscape with wide sidewalks and recessed patios would be great. Yours truly, area business leaders.

Though nobody has written such a letter to developer Bill Edwards, this is the sentiment a handful of business people conveyed when interviewed about what they think the city needs on this blank urban canvas, now that it finally may see some action.

People in the know say Edwards is selling the key city block to another developer but no transfer has yet appeared in official property records. Edwards declined to comment.

"I think the city really could use a large hotel with meeting space and retail on the bottom level, a rooftop bar or a restaurant on the top floor," said architect Lisa Wannemacher, president of Wannemacher Jensen Architects, Inc.

"I think it's clear to all parties involved that there is enough demand to support a hotel downtown," echoed David Downing, deputy director of Visit St. Pete/Clearwater, the Pinellas tourism agency.

Edwards, who two months ago paid $12 million for the mostly vacant property at 25 Second St. N, isn't revealing his plans at the moment.

With apartment complexes in various stages of construction on five downtown blocks and two small condo towers in the works, there isn't going to be a shortage of residential development for a while. Hotel rooms are a different story.

The Birchwoood, at 340 Beach Drive NE, opened a year ago, but the popular hotel added only 18 rooms to the downtown scene. Staybridge Suites added 119 suites when it opened in February at 940 Fifth Ave. S, but it's not in the heart of bustling downtown and caters to longer stays.

Occupancy rates show there is demand for more downtown hotel rooms during certain times. Pinellas hotels with 100 or more rooms had an average occupancy rate of 90 percent in April, according to Research Data Services Inc. The annual average occupancy rate for larger hotels was 75 percent last year and has climbed steadily from 62 percent in 2004.

"I can say the current market conditions definitely support the potential development of an additional hotel with a significant meeting facility in downtown St. Pete," said Walter Klages, head of the research company that has been analyzing the hotel industry since 1985.

His research doesn't break out geographic areas. But anecdotally, there have been recent nights downtown when there were few vacancies.

The Hampton Inn, at 80 Beach Drive NE, was close to 100 percent occupied during the peak season in March and April, said general manager Karl Johansson.

"In high season there are some select dates when we do sell out," said Barbara Lippert Readey, new general manager of the Vinoy Renaissance St. Petersburg Resort & Golf Club at 501 Fifth Ave. NE.

With 361 rooms, the Vinoy is downtown's biggest hotel, boasting more than 40,000 square feet of meeting space. Yet there is corporate business it can't satisfy. Readey, who came from the 580-room Marriott Biscayne Bay in Miami, said groups such as a state's association of nurses or restaurant and lodging businesses would want 2,000 rooms when booking a convention.

In those instances, hotels work together on a group proposal. A new downtown hotel would offer another potential partner, along with the 44-year-old Hilton St. Petersburg Bayfront, and could help land those big groups.

Tami Sims, board member and past president of the Downtown Business Association in St. Petersburg, also agreed a new hotel would complement the city's lodging, but says development of that block would serve the city in other ways.

"The visitor experience between Beach Drive and Central Avenue is completely interrupted by that vacant block," she said. "There is no invitation to continue up Central (Avenue)."

Praising the revamped open design of Edwards' Sundial shopping center, Wannemacher said she hopes any structure on the Tropicana block will be just as inviting to pedestrians.

"There really has to be focus on the street level experience," she said. "Especially along Central (Avenue) it could be recessed back at the corners and midpoints of the block."

She would like to see ground-level terraces with restaurants, wide sidewalks and a covered area to shield people from the sun and rain.

Ester Venouziou, founder of LocalShops1, a network for independent and small businesses, has another idea: a giant business incubator.

"It could have spaces available for entrepreneurs and artists and could help move businesses forward," she said. With rents so high in downtown and entrepreneurs holding down other day jobs, a cooperative venture would allow them to work in smaller spaces with shared employees running them. Small, affordable office space would be upstairs and there could be education and training as well.

Whatever ends up on the Tropicana block, Wannemacher said she hopes it will include a public parking garage to keep up with all the downtown development.

"Parking is going to be a real problem," she said, "and it's going to be sooner than later."

Staff writer Stephen Nohlgren contributed to this report. Katherine Snow Smith can be contacted at [email protected]

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