Big properties hold big opportunities in North Pinellas

Published April 16 2015

STORY BY Keyonna Summers | PHOTOS BY JIM DAMASKE | Times staff

For some, it was the recession. For others, it was hellish road construction. A few say it was simply the continuation of a years-long string of bad luck.

No matter the reason, dozens of properties and buildings stretching from Clearwater to Tarpon Springs have sat vacant for a long time. But real estate insiders say the tide is turning — and that North Pinellas has an edge.

Unlike south county, where demand for empty corporate-ready office buildings dominates, Pinellas economic development director Mike Meidel says the north part of the county has a larger cache of empty land, commercial buildings ripe for adaptive reuse and partially full office towers perfect for smaller companies.

"Pinellas County is so built-out," said real estate broker Steve Klein, "that the north part of the county is pretty hot."

Here, we take a look at 11 vacant buildings and properties that are large, in prominent locations, or both. We had industry experts offer their opinions on potential outcomes for these empty opportunities and the potential employment boost they stand to offer the region, once filled.

Stauffer Chemical plant

877 Anclote Road, Tarpon Springs

ASKING PRICE: On the market soon, following the April approval of land-use restrictions

SIZE: Various sources say between 125 and 132 acres

OWNER: AstraZeneca, a global pharmaceutical manufacturer that owns what was once Stauffer Chemical and all its assets

YEAR BUILT: N/A (vacant)

ZONING: Industrial

BACKGROUND: In 1947, Victor Chemical Co. built a plant on this parcel along the Anclote River, on unincorporated land just south of the county line, to burn phosphate ore and turn it into elemental phosphorus for use in food, fertilizers and ammunition. The furnace produced toxic smoke and infused radioactive slag deep into the earth. Stauffer bought it in 1960 and shut it in 1981. In 1994, the property, fenced with barbed wire, was declared a federal Superfund site, joining a list of the most contaminated places in the country. After a yearlong cleanup that wrapped in 2011, green grass covers the site and groundwater will forever be monitored for pollutants. Toxic soil remains, pushed into mounds and covered with a watertight cap — leaving 85 to 110 buildable acres.

"It's a beautiful piece of property, with some frontage on the water. In the past, there's been discussion of golf courses and resorts. But it is zoned industrial, and I don't see that changing. We're really seeing more residential lately, but residential will never be built on that site because nothing can go there that would require installation of wells or anything below ground. It would be nice for the city to have primary employment and get the jobs that we need. It's in a difficult (spot without) good access to rail, airports, highways. That's been our issue north of the river — though it's zoned industrial, we're not really able to attract those businesses. But a manufacturing facility would be excellent use for the property."

— Karen Lemmons, Tarpon Springs economic development director

Former Sears store

2130 Gulf-to-Bay Blvd., Clearwater

PRICE: Purchased in October for $7.1 million

SIZE: 105,250 square feet

OWNER: Leon Capital Group

YEAR BUILT: 1979

ZONING: Commercial

BACKGROUND: Sears vacated the building in 2010 but continued paying rent, "so the previous owners (private investors out of New York) were not overly motivated to sell. And of course that was during the great recession, so it wasn't the best time," former listing broker Patrick Berman said. When the rental agreement ended in 2014, the 9.7-acre property officially went on the market and was quickly snapped up along with an adjacent Payless ShoeSource and standalone bank building.

"We always had the property on our radar and when it became available again, we jumped on it and were aggressive and were able to win the bid. There's not a lot of large vacant boxes in Pinellas. We are retail developers, so we are intending on developing the property ourselves. … Right now, we're in negotiations with a number of different users but they're all going to be retail users. ."

— Ronnie Carlson, acquisitions associate for Leon Capital Group

"It's a full city block. You have streets on all four sides of the building. It has lots of parking. It's very central, right in the center of the county. … It's a rare commodity."

— Patrick Berman, senior director of retail brokerage services for Cushman & Wakefield

Nielsen Media Research campus

375 Patricia Ave., Dunedin

ASKING PRICE: $7 million

SIZE: 22.78 acres

OWNER: Wells Fargo Bank

YEAR BUILT: N/A (vacant)

ZONING: Mixeduse (multifamily, retail and office)

BACKGROUND: In 2005, Nielsen, known for its TV ratings service, moved 1,600 employees to Oldsmar and sold the largest single parcel in Dunedin to prominent Pinellas developer Grady Pridgen. But after Pridgen fell behind on loans, Wachovia and then Wells Fargo took the complex and listed it for sale. Dunedin and Pinellas County economic development officials spent years trying to attract another high-wage company. The bank has since razed the outdated buildings, lowered the listing price and won city approval to change zoning from light industrial to mixed use. As of last week, the listing broker said it was under contract by an undisclosed buyer.

“We've got multiple offers on it and we're negotiating. … It's mixed use and not everyone does mixed use. Most people are really, really good at one thing or maybe two things. But three things are kind of tough. So what's going to happen, in my opinion, is someone will come in who can do the apartment part and wait for the office and the retail to show up. But we could be surprised."

— Bruce Erhardt,

executive director of Cushman & Wakefield

Pappas Riverside/ Riverside Grille House restaurant

10 W Dodecanese Blvd., Tarpon Springs

ASKING PRICE: Undisclosed

SIZE: 55,362 square feet

OWNER: Tarpon Restaurant Services

YEAR BUILT: 1975

ZONING: Mixe Mixed use

BACKGROUND: For decades, Sparta immigrant Louis Pappas was said to annually attract 600,000 to 800,000 patrons who traveled from around the world to sample waterfront views and Greek fare served by the 1,000-seat Sponge Docks eatery's 200-person wait staff. It was sold in 2002 to a group that proposed a hotel/conference center that never came to fruition. Current owners Michael Lowe and Victor Holcomb bought it in 2006 and reopened in 2009 as a special-events center and eventually a restaurant as well. Operations ceased about a year ago. The special-area plan zoning provides incentives aimed at attracting uses such as a restaurant, retail, residential, museum or a hotel of up to six floors.

"Yes, it used to be a landmark restaurant. But it's a much larger space than most restaurants use these days and it's on multiple floors, where most restaurants want to be on a single floor and smaller. So I think the trouble is the market doesn't really support that kind of product anymore."

— Mike Meidel, Pinellas County economic development director

"We're looking for something that's going to bring an added amenity to the docks and, for us, the ideal would be a boutique hotel and restaurant. … That's something that's been a priority for the city. We get a lot of day trippers. When tourists come, they want a place to stay while they're there overnight."

— Karen Lemmons, Tarpon Springs economic development director

Firmenich Citrus Center

1585 10th St. S, Safety Harbor

ASKING PRICE: Undisclosed

SIZE: 34.55 acres

OWNER: Firmenich

YEAR BUILT: 1979

ZONING: Light industrial

BACKGROUND: About 10 years ago, Firmenich, an international fragrance and flavor chemical supplier, began moving operations to Lakeland, city and county officials said. In 2012, Richman Group of Florida proposed office buildings, retail space and a nearly 300-unit apartment complex. The city approved a zoning change request by Richman, which had scaled back designs amid neighbors' complaints that it posed harm to the environment, traffic and property values. However, Richman in July sued Pinellas County commissioners, saying they bowed to political pressure by twice rejecting the project — against the advice of their lawyer and an administrative judge — though it met government rules.

"The majority of the site is zoned industrial. The western part of the property is general office and there is some residential on the northern part. … The city would prefer someone who brings jobs to the city. We realize there's limitations. There are some wetlands. It's not one large warehouse that can be retrofitted; the buildings are very specialized and specific to Firmenich's operations. So unless you get a company like Firmenich or one of its direct competitors, anyone who comes in will have to raze the structures and build new. … (It's ideal for) any tech businesses that could come in and do business within an industrial setting. We don't want smokestacks. It's more the office setting or bioengineering or geo-tech type stuff."

— Matt Spoor, Safety Harbor city manager

HCA Healthcare

31975 U.S. 19 N, Palm Harbor

ASKING PRICE: Available for rent at $12.50 per square foot

SIZE: 123,351 square feet

OWNER: Milan Properties West

YEAR BUILT: 1987

ZONING: Commercial parkway

BACKGROUND: The building was a Costco and flea market before housing the offices of ABR Information Services, a health care benefits administration provider that changed its name to Ceridian and moved to St. Petersburg in 2000. Through at least 2009, the building served as administrative offices for Hospital Corp. of America, which has since moved.

"There's an awful lot of workers that commute by its front doors every day. Ultimately, you could get down to St. Pete without a stoplight when the express roadway system is done, so I think it's viable for the workforce. The problem is a lot of times companies want to be closer to the Tampa airport."

— Mike Meidel, Pinellas County economic development director

"Ideally, it would work for a large-scale tenant who has the need for a lot of parking and big, wide open space. … Finding that ideal tenant might be a little hard just because it's on its own up here in the north part of the county. … U.S. 19 construction is starting to wind down. I think that helps this building, because that's a main north-south road and this building sits between Curlew and Tampa, two east-west roads."

— Steve Klein, vice president of Klein & Heuchan Inc. Realtors

The Strand

1100 Cleveland St., Clearwater

ASKING PRICE: $8 million, reduced from a previous listing of $12 million

SIZE: 197,203 square feet

OWNER: Espacio USA

YEAR BUILT: 1972

ZONING: Mixed use

BACKGROUND: Originally a 15-story office tower, the former "1100 Building" was bought at the height of the market cycle, in 2004. Envisioning a high-end condo complex, the new Madrid, Spain, owner stripped the tower to its shell and built two stories of retail and parking around it. Work stopped in fall 2009 and the project has been racking up $250 a day in code violation fines since 2013.

"The reason it's sat so long is because you had a prolonged recession. Downtown Clearwater has had a little bit longer of a maturation cycle as compared to other downtowns in the region. … But things are starting to happen. Developers just broke ground on a large apartment project just across the street, which we think will be the first domino of many to fall. ... We've had a lot of interest, including people looking at possibly a high-end senior housing project. We have people who've even got it potentially as a corporate extended-stay. But I would say 90 to 95 percent of the interest we got was from rental apartment developers and, if I had to guess, that is probably the highest and best use."

— Casey Babb, former listing agent at Marcus & Millichap

Arbor Shoreline Office Park

19321-19361 U.S. 19 N, Clearwater

ASKING PRICE: About $65 per square foot

SIZE: 211,993 square feet spread across seven buildings on 24 acres

OWNER: Golden Shoreline LTD, run by an Ohio family that specializes in subsidized housing

YEAR BUILT: 1974 (three buildings), 1980 (four buildings)

ZONING: Office general

BACKGROUND: For years, this office park — which sits just yards south of Gulf-to-Bay Boulevard's Clearwater Mall and backs up to Tampa Bay — housed offices for the federal government and various companies, a listing broker said. The property emptied as road construction and the economic downturn lingered. Last year, the owners received unsolicited offers from national apartment developers and vacated remaining tenants amid a contract by a buyer to build 236 apartments on 16 acres. The project received city approval before falling through in October before closing. The property is for sale.

"That one will probably go under contract in the next couple of weeks and move from there. There will be a new owner on that property who will lease it to groups that will rehab it and bring it back to stabilization. Now that U.S. 19 is going to be completed as well, that's going to help tremendously. You could talk to some brokers or investors who might say it's (best for) multi-family and others might say it's best to leave it as is. Our personal view is, it's better to take what's there right now as office, bring it up to par and lease it out."

— John Gerlach, vice president of Colliers International

Was-to-be Walmart

South of Anclote River and east side of U.S. 19, Tarpon Springs

ASKING PRICE: $6.6 million

SIZE: 73.89 acres

OWNER: Walmart

YEAR BUILT: N/A (vacant)

ZONING: General business

BACKGROUND: In the mid 1990s, ABR Information Services proposed corporate headquarter offices and briefly flirted with the idea of apartments plus retail. But the company (now Ceridian) dropped plans amid neighborhood opposition and the state's refusal to install a stoplight. In 2008, Walmart also abandoned plans to build a supercenter on the property after three years of pushback from residents and environmentalists. The property — thought to be home to bald eagles, gopher tortoises and sandhill cranes — has been on the market since 2013. Only about half of the site not covered by wetlands is thought to be buildable. The city says zoning would allow uses including retail, professional offices, commercial recreation or hotel/lodging; conditional uses, like residential, would need special approval.

"The part closest to the Anclote, any of that wetlands, would need to remain open space. So you could do a nice residential, trails and maybe have a kayak access to the river. From an economic development standpoint, it fronts U.S. 19, which is prime commercial property. If there could be some retail use that portion, maybe you could then move to residential with park space … more toward the middle or rear of the developable property."

— Karen Lemmons, Tarpon economic development director

Wells Fargo building

2494 Bayshore Blvd., Dunedin

ASKING PRICE: Available for rent at $15 per square foot, per year

SIZE: 40,000 square feet

OWNER: Joe Kokolakis

YEAR BUILT: 1972

ZONING: Commercial

BACKGROUND: Originally built and occupied by Southeast National Bank of Dunedin, Wachovia and then Wells Fargo rented 10,000 of the facility's roughly 40,000 square feet for about 10 to 15 years. Prominent Dunedin developer Joe Kokolakis bought it at auction in September 2013.

"I think it's so large that it needs a large corporate headquarters type of tenant. But Pinellas County has gotten to the point where it's so densely populated that properties like this are ideal for adaptive reuse. So, I'm thinking of converting the vacant portion of the first floor to retail. This building in particular was designed to support an additional two floors, so I'm even pursuing a possibility of conversion to a hotel use or apartments. I would have to work around Wells Fargo, either (creating) a standalone branch or leave them where they are and work around them. They have a long-term lease."

— Joe Kokolakis, owner

580 Corporate Center

4029 Tampa Road, Oldsmar

ASKING PRICE: Available for lease at $6.75 per square foot, per year

SIZE: 94,000 square feet

OWNER: KTR Central Florida LLC, a real estate investment trust

YEAR BUILT: 2000

ZONING: light manufacturing/industrial

BACKGROUND: The building was filled for years until longtime tenant AFS Technologies experienced a business change that left much of the site unoccupied, the listing broker said. It went completely vacant last month when AFS moved out at the expiration of its lease.

"We have the ability to multi-tenant the building or lease it out to a single tenant. Pinellas County tends to be more of a manufacturing and assembly type of industrial user than Hillsborough, which tends to be more on the distribution end of business. That's the kind of tenant we're targeting. But if a distributor came to us and said they wanted the building, obviously we would entertain that. ... It's a Class A building in a Class A business park, which is very hard to find in North Pinellas, so we think we're positioned very well for the market."

— John Dunphy, listing broker with Jones Lang LaSalle

"That's a really popular site for employers of all kinds so I really think it will not take long for them to find a new tenant for that building. It's a very attractive area for IT companies."

— Mike Meidel, Pinellas County economic development director

Contact Keyonna Summers at [email protected] or (727) 445-4153. Follow @KeyonnaSummers.

                 
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