TAMPA — Larry Drew wants to transform a stretch of N Dale Mabry Highway into the city's most opulent neighborhood, with high-rise living that rivals Midtown Atlanta, Rodeo Drive and Times Square.
It's a grandiose vision for land that is now home to a Days Inn, a Dodge dealership and a Bennigan's restaurant. A sagging economy doesn't help his chances.
Recently splashed across local front pages, the project is being taken seriously.
In a 4-0 vote Thursday, the City Council approved the zoning on 8 acres that will allow for its first phase, which Drew, a commercial real estate broker, said will cost $250-million and include 373 condos, a four- to five-star hotel, and loads of space for restaurants, clubs and high-end shops.
Council members Gwen Miller, John Dingfelder and Mary Mulhern were absent.
The vote was a long-sought victory for Drew, a 61-year-old real estate broker who says he doesn't yet have project financing.
His background includes 37 years in real estate, with a specialty in commercial development. He's also weathered federal tax liens, a foreclosure and a related bankruptcy filing.
"I'm not perfect," Drew said. "I've had my highs and lows."
Yet in a town where even a condo tower with Donald Trump's name on it couldn't get built, Drew is more than confident he can close the deal of a lifetime.
"Take it to the bank," Drew said. "I'm on target, I know what I'm doing, I'm playing straight."
Drew doesn't own the land slated for the project. A company controlled by P.C. Patel does. Drew signed an agreement with Patel to get the zoning for the 8 acres. Once the zoning is in place, the value of the land goes up, and Patel can sell it for a higher profit and Drew would share in the profits.
At least that was the plan, Drew said. According to the 2005 agreement, Drew had to get the zoning in place by May.
It has taken three years to put it before the City Council because Drew has had to win the support of neighbors in Carver City and Lincoln Gardens.
Residents had complained about the height and size of the project. Five times since 2005 Drew scheduled a zoning hearing, only to delay it so he could make changes that the neighbors wanted, such as getting some power lines buried and a sewage station moved.
Drew has struggled just to get the money for the zoning, which he said has cost about $300,000.
Patel paid about half of that, he said. To get the rest, Drew needed to find other sources. Last year, he approached Joe Redner, who owns property in the area, for a loan.
"I don't know where he's going to get the money (for the project) because of this economy," said Redner, who owns the Mons Venus strip club.
Drew said investors ponied up for the rest of the zoning costs. He said he is now talking with partners to buy the land from Patel.
In the current financial climate, Drew said, he doesn't know when the project could actually start. If built, it would alter an area dominated by flat, horizontal big-box development, where the tallest structures are billboards and signs for fast-food restaurants. Drew's project includes three 14-story towers that would reach 150 feet into the air with parking underneath. The towers would be connected by interior arcades lined with shops and restaurants.
Located down the road from Tampa International Airport, International Plaza and Raymond James Stadium, Drew calls the site a golden opportunity and just a first step of a 60-acre site that he wants to turn into the most exclusive neighborhood in the city.
He also wants to expand by purchasing the Without Walls International Church next door and building a grand boulevard across the Metropolitan Life property nearby. If Florida legalizes gambling, Drew even envisions bringing a casino to one of the properties.
Big plans, especially for a man who has had his share of financial ups and downs.
Records show the U.S. Department of Treasury claimed Drew owed $36,000 in 1994. He had a federal tax lien for $6,400 filed against him in 1984 that was released in 2003.
"It took a couple of years to clear," he said. "It's just the nature of the (real estate) business. We had some good years, we had lean years."
He filed for bankruptcy protection in 1989 related to a foreclosure on $148,800 of property. Drew said he resolved that by giving the property back.
"It was a disagreement with a neighbor and some things were supposed to come through that didn't," he said. "I'm square with everyone."
Attorney Ron Weaver, whose firm represents the project, said Drew is a pioneer who early on recognized the importance of the area.
"He goes beyond being a visionary," Weaver said. "He had to dig in and believe in this. He had his share of nicks, but who doesn't in real estate? Now he has something that people say is viable."
But there's much to do. Is Drew the man to do it?
"I guarantee you I can make this deal work," he said. "I want to leave my mark on Tampa. This is a dream I've been chasing for 22 years."
Times researcher John Martin and Times staff writer Jeff Testerman contributed to this report. Michael Van Sickler can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3402.