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Brash developer says he wants to buy and revive BayWalk retail complex

Joel Cantor wants to buy and revive BayWalk.

Cantor is the brash developer of Signature Place, downtown St. Petersburg's 36-story luxury condo tower. A self-described "contrarian," Cantor says he will be putting together an offer for the largely vacant BayWalk — once the city's downtown retail and entertainment jewel — over the next few days.

Will Wells Fargo Bank and real estate company CW Capital, both with interests in foreclosed BayWalk, bite? Dollar specifics of this deal have not materialized just yet. But then again, it's arguably a shock to have anyone express ownership interest in BayWalk these days. A reasonable Cantor offer can't be easily ignored.

"It's a ghost town and I don't know why," Cantor says of BayWalk. The $42-million project opened with fanfare more than 10 years ago but later lost its luster and most of its tenants thanks to bad publicity, community discord and the recession. BayWalk was developed by a group that included the Sembler Co. The waning property was later passed on to fellow developer Fred Bullard, who defaulted on a $14.5 million mortgage.

BayWalk fell into foreclosure in early 2009 and has remained a retail pariah ever since. One of its few remaining tenants, home furnishings store hermanHome, closed its doors over the Christmas holiday. It's apparently only too happy to be relocating to another downtown location.

Cantor, 47, obviously likes to tackle big real estate challenges and make big and even controversial splashes. His architecturally striking Signature Place was developed and its condo units eventually filled amid a historic real estate downturn, a flurry of lawsuits from balky condo buyers and, finally, an auction of remaining units by a tough bank lender.

As soon as Signature Place was completed, Cantor blurted out his desire to tackle a new project: helping to build a new stadium for the Tampa Bay Rays. That did not sit well with a Rays management team trying to finesse its own plans. But Cantor says he welcomes the rough and tumble of dealmaking and is still involved.

"I like this city," Cantor says, trying to explain his interest in acquiring BayWalk. "My wife asked why in the world would I want to do that? I think it's a great project in need of a creative remake, which is right up my alley. I would, of course, rename and revision it."

And what new vision does Cantor have in mind?

He rattles off a half dozen ideas. Closing 2nd Avenue NE, the street separating BayWalk's retail shops from its nearby parking garage, at times to allow more outdoor space for events. Catering more to baby boomers, especially those living in the upscale condos along nearby Beach Drive. Persuading a landmark restaurant like the Columbia — currently operating on the downtown Pier — to relocate. Getting a cross section of the St. Petersburg community involved in the new project from the start to avoid the tensions of the past.

I'm not sure all those ideas are compatible. But once again, I give kudos to Cantor for at least trying to fix BayWalk. The one-time winner complex has gone absolutely nowhere but down for years.

And Cantor seems able to raise big money. This week Cantor announced he and his partners won commitments for a $125 million real estate fund to invest in distressed real estate assets.

Cantor says he's talked to St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster who, in Cantor's words, seems eager for something positive to happen at BayWalk.

Indeed, Foster's openness to Cantor's bid represents a growing awareness among city officials of how dire the BayWalk situation has become.

Foster did not return a call for comment Wednesday evening. But City Council member Bill Dudley probably spoke for many when he said the BayWalk situation has become unacceptable. Said Dudley: "The city needs to explore what its options are."

Right now, those options look a lot like Joel Cantor.

Times staff writer Michael Van Sickler contributed to this column. Contact Robert Trigaux at trigaux@sptimes.com

Brash developer says he wants to buy and revive BayWalk retail complex 01/05/11 [Last modified: Thursday, January 6, 2011 2:47pm]
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