ST. PETERSBURG — Thanks to a $12-million renovation, Beach Drive's oldest residential high-rise, Bayfront Tower, has a fresher, sleeker exterior facade, a new fitness center, renovated lobby and resurfaced pool deck. More than half of residents have opted to voluntarily replace their segmented windows with updated, floor-to-ceiling glass.
"The building aspires to be a high-end residential space in a very competitive marketplace,'' said Ted Mallin, a member of Bayfront Tower board of directors. "With the neglect that was going on in the building we were losing the ability to hold on to that status."
Before the recent renovation, Weyman Willingham, a resident since 1993, sometimes joked that the best thing about living in the Bayfront Tower was you didn't have to look at it. Neighbors in the newer, swankier condo towers built long after the 1975 building, had the view of the parking garage encased in wire mesh.
"We were in desperate need of a makeover,'' Willingham said. "They had all that grating on the outside. I think it's a huge improvement to get rid of that."
"There definitely is more interest in Bayfront Tower now that the work is done," said Matthieu Benoot, a Realtor with Benoot Realty. "When I was showing units in Bayfront or listed them, buyers were worried about special assessments, and the 'what ifs.' Now that it's pretty much wrapped up, people feel much more comfortable."
Along with the views and proximity to parks, the building has characteristics that set it apart from others downtown, he added. It allows for easy remodeling with removing or changing walls that aren't structural or load-bearing.
There was a time, of course, when Bayfront Tower at 1 Beach Drive SE ,was the newest waterfront condo downtown. It was so cutting edge, in fact, that the concept of congregate living was very slow to take off. The first tenants moved in to the 255-unit, 29-story building in 1975 but it didn't sell out until 1979. Its financier, Florida Federal Savings and Loan, had to step in and complete construction and take over ownership from the financially troubled developer.
Joe Lettelleir, the Florida First Service Corp. president charged with overseeing the project, now laughs at all the bank went through to sell waterfront condos in downtown St. Petersburg that are now in such high demand.
To entice buyers, the bank brought in an interior decorator from Chicago to create a grand model unit on Bayfront Tower's 27th floor. Ads were placed in the Wall Street Journal, Time magazine and Newsweek. Under a "Fly and Buy" promotion, if someone flew from out of town to check out a condo and signed a contract, the price of the flight was deducted from the selling price.
The units were priced to sell.
"You could get one on the lower floors for around $40,000. That was to jump start the market. A loss leader," Lettelleir said. Once buyers reacted, the prices went up, but not by too much. People were still getting into three-bedroom units for $125,000 to $150,000.
As new homeowners became the pioneers to congregate downtown luxury living, they had to adjust to city noise. Lettelleir remembers several new residents calling to complain after they moved in. One couple who lived on the 24th floor said when the bar across the street closed at 2 a.m. every night they could see patrons getting cozy, sometimes getting more than cozy, as they walked the sidewalks back to their cars.
"I asked them how they could see what anyone was doing that far away at night. They said they used binoculars," he recently recounted. "I asked him 'What are you doing up every night at 2 a.m.?' He said 'My wife and I set an alarm.'"
Other residents complained about what was happening inside the building, which led to a series of practical jokes.
While some residents embraced their newfound proximity with impromptu parties and happy hours, traveling the from floor to floor with cocktails and cheese and crackers in hand, others didn't embrace the shared common spaces. Complaints to the management prompted a sign to go up in the elevators reading: "No Drinking in Elevators."
Billy Mills Jr., one of the first residents, and a couple of neighbors countered by ordering professionally made signs reading: "No Talking," "No Laughing" and "No Coughing."
"We went out and bought a lot of super glue and stuck those in all the elevators," Mills recounted. "We were trying to send the message that the building was getting a little too serious."
A year or so later residents were outraged when they received word from Bayfront Tower that management was limiting the size of dogs permitted to live in the building to 14 pounds or below. All residents received an official memo notifying them of a dog weigh-in.
"All dogs shall be walked prior to weigh-in," it read. "In order to inconvenience the tenants as little as possible the following schedule for weigh-in has been established: 10 a.m. to 10:15 a.m. French Poodles, 10:15 a.m. to 10:30 a.m. Great Danes, 10:30 a.m. to 10:45 a.m. Pekinese, 10:45 a.m. to 11 a.m. English Sheepdogs, 11:15 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. all other breeds. .… Anyone not producing their dog for weigh-in at the times designated shall have their dog permanently removed from the building."
Some panicked dog-loving condo owners called the St. Petersburg Timesto complain about unfair management. Future Pulitzer prize winner Tom French, then a new hire at the Times, was sent to Bayfront Tower to get to the truth and reported the next day that the official-looking memo was a fake. "Fat Fidos, rest easy — condo weigh-in a hoax," the headline read.
Times senior researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.