Saturday, May 26, 2018
Business

The challenges of developing in downtown Largo

LARGO — Urban Edge Development specializes in the hard-to-do. The company builds condos and apartments in challenging neighborhoods where other developers might stay away.

It has done this successfully in Tampa and St. Petersburg. But downtown Largo is proving to be a tough nut to crack.

"I enjoy going into neighborhoods that I believe are on the cusp of turning for the better," said Urban Edge's president, Russ Versaggi. "It takes a keen eye and some fortitude, to be sure. But it's very rewarding to see these areas come back to life."

Last August, Urban Edge signed a contract to buy a 1-acre vacant lot at 158 Ridge Road from the city of Largo. The city is unloading the parcel at a loss in an effort to spark some development in its downtown area.

Urban Edge has plans to build a modern, 24-unit apartment complex with market-rate rents on this property not far from the intersection of Clearwater-Largo Road and West Bay Drive.

But nine months later, it's still trying to line up financing and investors. "We have half of the money raised, but we still aren't there yet," Versaggi said.

One issue: The vacant lot is just north of the aging Oak Alley Apartments, a sprawling complex of small, dumpy-looking cottages that rent out for cheap. The complex fronting West Bay Drive has efficiency apartments renting for $155 a week.

Meanwhile, Urban Edge has visions of filling its future apartments with young professionals who will pay rents of about $1,275 per month for two-bedroom, two-bathroom suites. They'd be in a new building with amenities like wood floors, granite countertops, stainless steel appliances, crown molding, a pool and an outdoor kitchen.

"We're talking about a condo-quality product," Versaggi said. "Each bedroom has its own bathroom. We're calling them suites. They work for the younger demographic."

New complexes in the area are charging similar rents, he said. The cost of utilities would be included. He hopes to attract tenants who work at nearby major employers like Largo Medical Center and the Pinellas County School District headquarters.

In the meantime, the Oak Alley Apartments remain there — rows of low-slung cottages with dirty peach-colored walls and rusty old window air-conditioning units.

Its tenants tend to be on disability, retired or working low-wage jobs. They live there because it's affordable. They don't want to see the place torn down and redeveloped.

"Thank God for this place. I couldn't find anything else," said 59-year-old Alida Parker, who lives on disability. "Where else are we supposed to go? So many people come here looking to rent, it's incredible."

Versaggi is accustomed to neighbors like Oak Alley. His company built apartments in a boarded-up church in Tampa Heights. It built condos on the north edge of downtown Tampa "before anybody would go up that way," he said. It built townhomes in a tough area of downtown St. Petersburg, near Eighth Street and Third Avenue N.

"In a challenging area, I try to befriend the neighboring properties around me — ask if I can edge their curb or trim their bushes," he said. "I'll do that with this little cottagey place. I'll reach out to them and ask, 'Do you mind if I put some paint on those walls?' "

According to Pinellas County property records, Oak Alley Apartments is owned by Three Angels Investment Company, which is owned by Marguerite and Raafat Hanna.

Versaggi said he wrote them a letter but never heard back.

Oak Alley Apartments has no office, but a sign displays a phone number. In response to a reporter's call, an unidentified man called back and said, "We are not planning for any redevelopment. It's a long-term investment for us for retirement." He noted that the cottages were old, dating back to the 1940s or early 1950s.

Largo officials think Urban Edge is close to getting financing to complete the purchase of the 1-acre vacant lot. Urban Edge is to pay $144,000 for the property — about a sixth of the $850,000 that Largo paid for it in 2007. The property is the former site of the Stepping Stone house for the homeless. The city bought it and demolished the blighted structures on it.

Development there would help the city sell off several other downtown parcels.

"We hope to close on the property by the end of the month," said Teresa Brydon, Largo's economic development manager.

Mike Brassfield can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 445-4151. Follow him on Twitter @MikeBrassfield.

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