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At Tampa Bay's top retail complexes, the hottest trends are lawsuits

Tampa Bay's Big 3 complexes — St. Petersburg's BayWalk, waterfront Tampa's Channelside and Ybor City's Centro Ybor — were supposed to be the 21st century anchors for this metro area's retail and entertainment future.

I won't bore you reciting the obvious. At best, BayWalk is a zombie. Channelside is quickly sliding down the recession slope. And Centro Ybor is hanging tough, even though it waved goodbye last week to its arcade tenant, GameWorks, and is now suing the departed business for leaving behind $723,000 in debt.

All three complexes, of course, are major victims of a recession that, via job losses and sinking home values, crippled the spending power and confidence of area residents, and suppressed once free-spending tourists.

But look at the bright side: The ills of these three have proved a bonanza of job opportunities for one sector of the economy: lawyers.

Area courts are awash in lawsuits by the three retail complexes suing former tenants for unpaid rent. More suits have been filed against some of the owners of the complexes themselves because they, in turn, are not up to date in paying for the leased land on which their complex sits. Still others involve litigation by lenders that are owed big bucks on unpaid loans from a complex owner. And those are just the obvious suits.

It's tough to keep up with the status of these three high-profile complexes.

Here's a quick primer:

• BayWalk remains largely vacant of tenants despite the promises last fall that giving the retail complex control of the sidewalk along its entrance would rid the area of war protesters and loitering teens and re-establish a positive atmosphere for leasing. That has not happened yet.

BayWalk's owner is CW Capital of the Washington, D.C., area. It acquired control of the downtown retail complex's financing in a package of collateralized loans. CW's local agent, Ciminelli Real Estate Services, is charged with the elusive task of finding new tenants for empty storefronts — just as many stores migrate to nearby Beach Drive, downtown's waterfront street, and plans for a new Pier may mean additional retail competition. BayWalk's owner sued several ex-tenants for failure to pay rent.

• Channelside's owner, New York's Ashkenazy Acquisitions Corp., was sued in late March by Anglo Irish Bank Corp. Ltd. for allegedly failing for the past year to keep up payments on a $27 million Channelside loan. Ashkenazy's other properties include Union Station in Washington, D.C., and the Pepsi Forum in Montreal.

Earlier this year, the Tampa Port Authority also sued Ashkenazy's local presence, Channelside Bay Mall LLC, claiming it owed the port — which owns the land where Channelside sits — more than $330,000 in rent and late fees.

• Centro Ybor just lost its 28,000-square-foot GameWorks and has sued to seize the electronic games and property left behind.

Even with GameWorks out of the picture, Centro Ybor enjoys an enviable 80 percent occupancy rate, says complex owner M&J Wilkow of Chicago. The Ybor site may resist the pull that's hurt Channelside and put BayWalk in retailing's intensive care unit.

Eventually, these complexes will revive. Until then, lawyers may be their best customers.

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

At Tampa Bay's top retail complexes, the hottest trends are lawsuits 04/05/10 [Last modified: Monday, April 5, 2010 7:53pm]
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