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Reality reprices high-end St. Petersburg waterfront condos

On a clear day, as Friday surely was, you can see forever from the 36th floor of the nearly complete Signature Place condo project in downtown St. Petersburg.

You know the one. The tall, thin one near Al Lang Field, the one a hair's breadth shorter than the nearby Bank of America tower. The one that, far more than any other condo in downtown's swanky waterfront row, stops locals and visitors alike to gawk and wonder. The one, for those lucky enough to get the tour, with about a zillion sweeping water views. The one that ranks among the most interesting and sophisticated residential projects ever to rise in the Tampa Bay area.

Well, all those views just went on sale. Deep discount, in fact.

Project developer Cantor Development late last week e-mailed buyers long under contract to buy at Signature Place that it was reducing the price of all its units by a whopping 25 percent. On a $700,000 condo, an average contract price for a Signature Place unit, that's $175,000 off.

That's not chump change.

Not that there was much choice in a housing market laid low by overbuilding and amid rising grumbling from some buyers stuck with pre-recession prices and, for many others, the difficulty of first selling their existing homes. Initially, Tampa developer Joel Cantor managed to resist dropping Signature Place prices because of the condo's exclusivity and landmark architectural design — especially after the ill-fated, upscale Trump Tower Tampa failed to materialize.

But is a 25 percent discount enough to rally Signature Place in this brutal real estate market? Gene Ormond, who signed a contract in June 2006 to buy a condo, calls the price drop "too little, too late" and plans to walk away from the project and his contract.

But he still wants the project to be a winner. "Signature Place needs to succeed for downtown St. Petersburg," he says.

A more enthusiastic buyer, Joe Pugliano, who own the UPS store across the street from Signature Place, can't wait to move in. A 25 percent price cut is just icing on the cake.

Pugliano's condo is on the sixth floor, expressly chosen to be on the same level as Signature Place's exercise room and outdoor pool.

"Maybe I'll buy two now," he jokes.

So there's the rub. How many buyers in this recession will commit and close on a Signature Place condo — discount and all — by Cantor's June 30 deadline?

"I recognized almost a year ago that the economy was running into trouble," Cantor says. He describes how Fifth Third Bank and other lenders financing the condo project were "shocked" when he suggested discounting Signature units by 25 percent.

"After 156 telephone calls, 32 letters, loads of e-mails and 17 meetings, the banks, to their credit, finally relented and agreed to my request," Cantor says.

That means both the banks and Cantor's development firm will absorb the financial hit of the big discount.

Signature, clearly Cantor's pride and joy among all of his 45 projects, cost $170 million to build. "No building will be built like this in Pinellas County in the next 100 years," he boasts, because it costs too much and requires years of planning.

His message to Signature's buyers: "You are now paying significantly less that what it cost to build the project."

That may be true, but it still is no guarantee that buyers are investing wisely amid Florida's serious condo glut.

Bill West, Cantor's vice president of development and the principal in charge of Signature Place, sent an e-mail Thursday that acknowledged condo buyers' frustrations.

The 25 percent price cut, West told Signature Place buyers, "required significant compromising and financial concessions by both the developer and the lenders in an effort to provide this unprecedented discount."

Lawyers representing some Signature Place clients seeking an exit from their original contracts think the 25 percent price cut is a healthy starting point, but not necessarily a final figure.

Breaking — or protecting — real estate contracts set at pre-recession prices has become a big growth business for area lawyers, says Howard Ross of the Battaglia, Ross, Dicus & Wein law firm in St. Petersburg.

On one level, Signature Place is simply facing the inevitable in a real estate bubble that has popped from absurd highs back in 2006 and is settling at the more realistic ranges of 2003.

On another level, Signature Place represents the boldest high-end condo development perhaps in Tampa Bay history. Its struggle to reprice and satisfy condo buyers and its bankers is a painful reminder that no property is invulnerable to this recession.

However Signature Place is resolved, you have to admire the project. The units I saw Friday varied in size — and that's one of the great features.

Many downtown waterfront condos are heavy on big units and $1 million-plus price tags. Signature Place boasts 244 residential condos, from high-end whoppers to one-bedroom units under 1,000 square feet and priced — now at 25 percent off — just over $300,000.

That's not for everybody's budget. But nobody said Signature Place, with all those water views, was ever designed as an affordable housing project.

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

Reality reprices high-end St. Petersburg waterfront condos 04/11/09 [Last modified: Saturday, April 11, 2009 4:31am]
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