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Lock Up self-storage facility being built near Tropicana Field

Construction continues Monday at Lock Up, a self-storage warehouse at 18th Street and First Avenue S in St. Petersburg. The facility, scheduled to open in September, will fill the space of a long-empty printing plant.

DIRK SHADD | Times

Construction continues Monday at Lock Up, a self-storage warehouse at 18th Street and First Avenue S in St. Petersburg. The facility, scheduled to open in September, will fill the space of a long-empty printing plant.

Last year, the Tampa Bay Rays envisioned Tropicana Field becoming a residential-retail showpiece. But the short-term reality is the neighborhood is turning into downtown St. Petersburg's attic.

Come September, the ballpark will be bookended by self-storage warehouses when the Lock Up opens in a remodeled phone book plant. The two-story, 100,000-square-foot facility fronting First Avenue S on the stadium's west side will be bigger than the five-story U-Haul Co. warehouse on the eastern flank.

Not that there's anything wrong with that. The old printing plant once owned by high school namesake Dixie M. Hollins had been empty for years, so the notion of landing a new owner offering more jobs wasn't imminent. And self-storage is becoming a go-to option for developers playing to local governments' love affair with mixed-use projects where people work, live and play — but don't have storage space in those condos and townhouses. Plus, with a faux-stucco facade accented with a barrel-tile overhang, the Lock Up is designed to blend in.

"We're the Nordstrom of the industry," said Andrea Carnes, vice president of operations for BRB Development LLC.

Indeed, many of the Chicago company's 29 other Lock Ups come with more bells and whistles than the old open-air orange garage doors: free half-day use of a truck to move in and move out; indoor loading bays, carpeted hallways and commercial space designed to augment home businesses or a storefront. In places like Naples, Lock Up rents climate-controlled wine collection storage.

The drawing card for downtown: a crop of more than 2,000 new high-end condos and premium-priced apartments.

The timing could be better. Much of that housing remains empty. Meanwhile, the recession has shown something for the first time in the self-storage industry's short history: There is a limit to America's pack rats' need to store treasures that are often valuable to nobody else.

"We once said our industry is recession resistant," said Kate Corripio, director of the Florida Self-Service Association, which speaks for 2,300 warehouses. "Now we say 'recession resilient.' "

It's been a sobering time for an industry that until last year was in a building frenzy to keep up with a bottomless pit of consumer-culture storage needs.

In the last recession there were business failures, and more are on the horizon this time. But who recalls a bay area mini-storage warehouse ever closing?

"I don't," said Mike Mele, vice president of Marcus & Millichap, a real estate investment services firm in Tampa. "What changed is self-storage started out as a form of land bank, to turn cash on the edge of town until the population caught up to create demands for other uses. Now developers want to be in a high-traffic place where people live, so they compete for top retail space. One tells me, 'I want to see a Wal-Mart and smell a McDonald's.' "

Shares of publicly traded self-storage real estate investment trusts took a hit this year. But they have fallen a fraction as deeply as other commercial property trusts as tight-fisted banks stopped all development despite demand for space.

The problem is that move-outs outnumber move-ins.

About two-thirds of the business is storing stuff for people moving into other homes, which slowed to a trickle. More mortgage foreclosures helped. But that's been offset by delinquencies that mean auctions of abandoned stuff to pay back rent.

About 20 percent of customers treat self-storage as a wing of their garages. To many, it's become a luxury.

"When it's a choice of cable TV or the self-storage unit, most people choose cable," said Brenda Scarborough, president of Accountable Properties Inc., a Lutz firm that manages 41 Florida self-storage properties, a dozen of them in the Tampa Bay area. "We've had seasonal down cycles, but nothing this long."

So with industry occupancy down 15 percent, belt-tighteners may demand — and get — discounts, concessions and other come-ons.

Mark Albright can be reached at albright@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8252.

Lock Up self-storage facility being built near Tropicana Field 03/23/09 [Last modified: Monday, March 23, 2009 9:58pm]

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