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High-stakes battles for St. Petersburg high-rise Signature Place

New Signature Place resident Ginnie Van Kesteren spends some quality time with her dog Conor in her twenty-second-floor condo unit at the downtown St. Petersburg development, whose slim design offers a view of Tampa Bay from most of the 220 units.

SCOTT KEELER | Times

New Signature Place resident Ginnie Van Kesteren spends some quality time with her dog Conor in her twenty-second-floor condo unit at the downtown St. Petersburg development, whose slim design offers a view of Tampa Bay from most of the 220 units.

Signature Place, the $170 million sail-shaped condo tower that has reshaped St. Petersburg's silhouette, has steered into something of a gale.

Developer Joel Cantor, clipped by the recession just as he topped off the tower's 36 stories last year, has spent the summer grappling with a rumor mill that's determined to sweep him into the loser's column. The project's a bust. Buyers are backing down. Surly bankers have pushed Cantor aside. Or so the naysayers have it.

Cantor continues to reassure such doom-and-gloomers that their fears are misplaced. In what Cantor dubbed a "haircut sharing agreement," his lenders, lead by Fifth Third Bank, agreed to slash condo prices 25 percent last spring.

"I basically gave away the lion's share of my profit. You won't see my jet parked at the airport," Cantor says.

"I hope to recapture my investment money I put in. I think it's best to mark down my profit and live for another day."

The project at First Avenue S and Second Street is considered one of the most innovative in the region. Most of the 220 units in the tower command a view of the bay, thanks to the building's slim profile.

And with an average price below $500,000, it stands out from the new buildings with million-dollar-plus units that dominate the St. Petersburg waterfront.

Cantor has closed the sale of 56 condos in six weeks, numbers to die for in the Tampa Bay area's miserable real estate climate. But Cantor, a normally effervescent entrepreneur, still has problems.

Fifty-five of his 177 buyers — people who laid down deposits over the past three years — will probably walk away from their contracts. Cantor's heard every excuse, some he deems legitimate, some not: I need 40 percent off. Why did you shrink the size of one of the spas? The toilet paper holder's on the right side and I'm a lefty.

"They just think I'm sugar daddy man," Cantor said in exasperation as he deplaned last week from a business meeting in Washington, D.C.

He's referring specifically to a buyer who demanded a 43 percent discount or else he'd hightail it.

"When you give people a deal, they think you're weak," he said. "You give them a hand, and they want your arm."

Cantor has taken a tough stand against defectors. He's loath to refund the 20 percent deposits for those unable or unwilling to close.

He calls some of his hardest bargainers "rogue buyers" who try to "weasel out" of contracts. His reluctance to deal in some cases has provoked a handful of lawsuits, three of which are still outstanding.

St. Petersburg attorney David Bacon, who has represented several Signature Place plaintiffs, said disputes hinge on whether alterations made to the project, including changing the size of a swimming pool and spa, allow buyers to rescind contracts.

"Buyers truly believe, if they were to close, they're not receiving the same benefit that they bargained for many months ago," Bacon said.

Job loss, shriveled investments and general economic malaise have clearly wreaked havoc on buyers' ability to pay for units they contracted for several years ago.

"The momentum has definitely slowed down because people are having trouble getting financing," said Bill West, Signature's vice president of development. "If we're patient, we're going to sell this thing out."

Patton Hunter, a downtown St. Petersburg artist and painter, initially signed up for a two-bedroom unit, but realized too late that she couldn't afford it. Signature fit her into a less expensive one-bedroom condo instead, and she closed 10 days ago.

"When they offered the downsizing, it felt like a door opening. It was a possibility to get out without spending so much money," Hunter said.

In a sign of the times, Hunter won't live in her unit, but plans to list it immediately on the resale market for $273,000, $2,000 less than she paid.

On the other hand, Mitch Permuy, an electrical contractor whose company worked on Signature Place, bought 3 units two weeks ago for his three older children. Price: $1.5 million.

"It's a statement building down there," Permuy said. "Even if they're impacted a little now, the value of the condos is going to start climbing again."

One of the most persistent rumors dogging the project is that bankers have tossed Cantor aside and now have the money men running the operation.

That's false, Cantor says. His job was to finish the building on time and on budget, which he did.

Now he'll spend the next 1 1/2 years trying to sell out a building he had hoped would already be full of happy residents.

"We had to dial it back," Cantor said. "You can't hide from the economy, no matter how smart you are."

Times staff writer Robert Trigaux contributed to this report.

High-stakes battles for St. Petersburg high-rise Signature Place 08/21/09 [Last modified: Sunday, August 23, 2009 7:46pm]

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