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Signature Place luxury condos will be put on the auction block

The auction of 35 condos at Signature Place in St. Petersburg comes amid one of the worst real estate markets in years.

MELISSA LYTTLE | Times

The auction of 35 condos at Signature Place in St. Petersburg comes amid one of the worst real estate markets in years.

ST. PETERSBURG — Developer Joel Cantor proclaims it his "jihad mission" to sell out his Signature Place condominium tower, the 36-story skyscraper that strikes a sail-shaped profile on the St. Petersburg waterfront.

But the latest plan to light a fire under condo sales in the high-rise is giving even Cantor the jitters. His lender, Fifth Third Bank, is putting 35 units up for auction next month at starting prices that are two-thirds less than what Cantor had been asking.

Cantor is trying to put a happy face on a hurry-up sales strategy forced by the most hostile real estate climate in decades. He's among a select few Florida condo developers still standing. But he clearly thinks Fifth Third is jumping the gun.

Since the first Signature Place residents moved in last summer, he has closed on the sale of 100 of 242 units. Given the rest of this year, he could sell out 80 percent of the glass tower at First Avenue S and Second Street, he said.

"We really didn't have a choice," Cantor said of the auction scheduled for 1 p.m. March 7 at the Hilton St. Petersburg. "I'm going to look like I've gone under. It's a good idea but it's not the proper time."

Jon Gollinger, president of auctioneer Accelerated Marketing Partners, insists the auction will benefit Cantor by re-calibrating real estate prices and uniting buyers and sellers.

"This is a campaign to establish value," Gollinger said Tuesday as he flew to St. Petersburg to help organize the sale. "How long can you sit there and fight the market? It becomes an act of folly after a while to be so sanctimonious and self-righteous to force the market to go to your number. The consumer rules."

But folks who previously bought units worry that the auction will set a benchmark far below what they paid.

Barry Dingman paid $642,900 in June for a two-story unit on the eighth and ninth floors. The original 2006 price, before the housing market collapse, was $989,000. Cantor discounted units 35 percent last year in what he called a "pain-sharing agreement" with the bank.

"An auction sounds like an act of desperation. It seems unnecessary to me. This building creates a buzz all its own," Dingman said.

Signature Place condo owner Matt Bryant sees some value in speeding up sales. As treasurer of the building's homeowners association, he would like to see the tower full.

"No one wants to see their values go down," said Bryant, who paid $491,000 for a unit in June. "But we also want to see people paying HOA fees."

Initial bidding will range from $135,000 for a 859-square-foot, one-bedroom condo to $430,000 for a 2,400-square-foot, three-bedroom condo. The auction is absolute: If a bidder meets the minimum asking price, the sale sticks.

"It's wildly below market value. It's a starting point, hopefully. But who knows? That may be all the market will pay,'' Gollinger said.

One prospective bidder has already stated his intentions: Cantor himself. If it looks as though units will go rock bottom, he wants a piece of the action. "I'm going to bid myself and rent it out," Cantor said.

Cantor's immediate concern is how to deal with 10 pending condo sales. If the auction sets prices too low, he'll be forced to lower prices on the contracts.

Not that Cantor is turning a profit. Not anymore. He has been charging about $300 per square foot on units that cost him $417 per square foot to build. Auction prices will probably be lower.

"This auction is not my idea," he said. "We're for it, of course. But I feel for my customers."

Signature Place luxury condos will be put on the auction block 02/09/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, February 10, 2010 10:21am]
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