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Downtown St. Petersburg enjoys a new park, for now

ST. PETERSBURG — Where a decrepit parking garage and two hulking, long-vacant buildings once stood, downtown St. Petersburg has a lovely — if temporary and off-limits— new park.

Now that the structures have been demolished and the ground cleared of all but several large trees, workers have sodded and landscaped the entire 400 block of Central Avenue. Black, estate-style fencing will rim the perimeter and keep pedestrians out while allowing the kind of pastoral views rarely seen in city centers.

But this urban oasis won't last long.

"We're going to put up a big building,'' the block's soon-to-be owner, John Catsimatidis, said Wednesday. The New York billionaire said he expects to close on the site this spring, submit plans to the city "soon after'' and start construction within 18 months.

Head of the Red Apple Group, Catsimatidis said company representatives are in St. Petersburg this week meeting with architects. They could soon have a new rendering; the one released last summer when he contracted to buy the block shows a glass tower soaring 41 stories and dwarfing everything around it.

The building probably will contain condos, offices, hotel and retail space — "something to accommodate everybody downtown,'' Catsimatidis said.

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: Wrecking ball takes down old Pheil Hotel

While the rest of downtown began a remarkable comeback, redevelopment of the 400 block was stymied for years because of a dispute between its two owners, First States Investors, a real estate investment firm, and the Pheil family, descendants of an early mayor who originally developed the site. But the feud was resolved early last year and demolition began in August of the 1920s era buildings, which for decades had been clad in aluminum sheathing that made them look like enormous cheese graters.

Under its agreement with the Pheils, First States was responsible for razing the structures. That process, which involved a 6,500-pound wrecking ball and large concrete-crunching machinery, enthralled downtown visitors and workers for months.

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: As development deal nears for old Pheil Hotel, take a look inside a building frozen in time

As a condition of its demolition permit from the city, First States also was required to landscape the two-and-half acre site to keep it from becoming a weedy eyesore. This week, crews are laying roughly 100,000 square feet of sod and planting shrubbery along the fence and a narrow access road that runs east-west across the middle of the block.

"First States is paying several hundred thousand for the landscaping and related costs,'' said Keith Rupp, a spokesperson for the firm. "This ensures the area is visually attractive at least until the next project begins.''

Altogether, the cost of clearing the site has been estimated at $2 million.

Once the city approves the demolition and landscaping work, probably within the next week or so, Pheil family attorneys will schedule a mail-away closing of the agreement under which First States will sell its part of the block to the Pheils. After that transaction is completed — estimated to be in 60 to 90 days — a closing will be scheduled between the Pheils and the Red Apple Group.

Those who live and work near the 400 block of Central are glad to see the end of demolition, which forced the closing of sidewalks and traffic lanes in the area. And they are enjoying the new park, short-lived as it may be.

"It has been nice seeing something done to the property,'' said Jamie Title, who works for a software firm in the Kress Building across the street. "Depending on what gets built, it's going to drastically change the landscape of St. Petersburg. The city is definitely going through fantastic growth.''

Contact Susan Taylor Martin at smartin@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8642. Follow @susanskate

Downtown St. Petersburg enjoys a new park, for now 01/05/17 [Last modified: Thursday, January 5, 2017 4:31pm]
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