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Mission accomplished at Signature Place condo, developer Cantor eyes new Rays stadium

Joel Cantor, 46, developer of St. Petersburg’s Signature Place, sits in the lobby of the downtown condo building. Cantor sold out the 244-unit tower while other high-end buildings in Tampa’s Channelside and Clearwater remain unfilled.

CHERIE DIEZ | Times

Joel Cantor, 46, developer of St. Petersburg’s Signature Place, sits in the lobby of the downtown condo building. Cantor sold out the 244-unit tower while other high-end buildings in Tampa’s Channelside and Clearwater remain unfilled.

Developer Joel Cantor is hunting for new challenges after the marathon of selling out all 244 units of the iconic, sail-shaped Signature Place tower that has transformed St. Petersburg's waterfront skyline.

This is a big-picture guy gunning for bigger venues, a force of nature, a "Can Do" Cantor who, after a rough recession, chalks up a victory at Signature Place. Now he's calling on St. Petersburg to be bold in its fight for a new baseball stadium for the Tampa Bay Rays and to act now, while the team is hot.

Cantor, 46, wants to help. After an interview Monday, Cantor said he got in touch with the global firm Populous, which designed the new Yankee Stadium. He's set to meet with them in Tampa Bay next week to discuss designs and locations for the Rays.

"Nothing happens unless someone makes it happen," Cantor said. His strategy? Pick a designer. Choose two sites to play off each other so either doesn't charge too much. Work out financing (municipal bond interest rates are so low it makes financing almost free, he said). Start building.

"St. Pete must take charge to keep the team," he said.

And I thought Cantor was going to talk about Signature Place. Silly me.

It's kind of refreshing to hear such go-for-the-gusto talk amid these glum economic times. But there was a time, many months and lawsuits ago, when Cantor's chances of selling so many empty Signature Place condos seemed dim. The 36-story building became a symbol of big Florida dreams smacked by a crushing real estate collapse.

The saga of Signature Place, from its inception in 2005 to its selling out late last month, is an economic soap opera. It stars a go-for-broke Cantor, bold architects, big-scale builders, a bevy of nervous bank lenders, lawyers galore and buyers first wowed by the condo tower's pre-recession cachet, then angered by unit prices that soon felt sky high in a fast-falling real estate market.

No matter. Cantor bulled his way to the finish line. He schmoozed with his reluctant Midwest bankers backing the project. He calmed the wait-a-minute real estate lawyers. Along the way, he filled a huge condo tower in a regional market where many other high-end condos in downtown St. Petersburg, in Tampa's Channelside and in Clearwater still tread water.

Cantor even claims a profit despite the big price reductions he was forced to offer. He first knocked 33 percent off the initial prices at Signature Place to keep most of his condo buyers from feeling like they were getting fleeced. Later, he had to auction the tower's 84 remaining units. Sixty-two sold and the remainder were bought last month.

"I had to sacrifice 75 percent of my profit to make the project a winner," Cantor said. "Tons of folks told me that I am wasting my time, that this could not be done and that this building is too nice for St. Pete. I love hearing this. I always tell myself: 'Why not you? You can do it.' "

In the end, fully sold, Signature Place boasts 115 units of full-time residents and 35 rental units with the remainder occupied by seasonal owners from places like Canada, Michigan and Pennsylvania.

Cantor speaks often about the rewards of overcoming challenges and pain. "Of course," he said, "when you make it through the ring of fire and make money, it's all the sweeter. That building is standing there and will be for at least 100 more years."

Signature Place units initially averaging about $700,000 ended up priced about $460,000. That, Cantor said, is one reason Signature Place sold out while other nearby luxury condos like Ovation, which boasts just over 40 units averaging more than $1 million, remain so slow to fill.

As Cantor tells it, if he had waited for every legal document to be signed, every detail to be ironed out, every banker to be appeased, Signature Place would not exist today.

Cantor's reputation for delivering Signature Place did not go unnoticed. He's now in demand as a turnaround consultant for condo projects in Las Vegas and the Caribbean struggling with the recession, uneasy lenders and unhappy condo buyers.

It's the developer's game that energizes Cantor as much as any finished project. If it seems a leap to go from developer of Signature Place to catalyst for a new Rays stadium, Cantor obviously does not seem bothered by the difference.

He'll meet with the architect, St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster and Rays owner Stuart Sternberg. Cantor said he would own a small part of the stadium and maybe the team (if they want a partner) and build out the project.

"You've got to go forward," he said. "Watch this unfold. It should be lots of fun."

Indeed. Play ball.

Robert Trigaux can be reached at trigaux@sptimes.com.

Mission accomplished at Signature Place condo, developer Cantor eyes new Rays stadium 10/11/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, October 12, 2010 1:21am]
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