ST. PETERSBURG — A New York investor could change the face of Central Avenue's EDGE District with construction of a retail incubator, loft apartments and a large garden.
Jonathan Daou, who owns four retail spaces in New York's SoHo area, recently paid $1.7 million for about 1.5 acres west of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. St., at 930 Central Ave. Other than a parking lot during Tampa Bay Rays games, the long-vacant land has been an eyesore and deterrent to pedestrian traffic.
"It would be great if this were a denser area," said Karen Porterfield, who recently opened Plain Jane gifts and accessories at 1104 Central Ave. "There are so many vacant spots, people don't really want to walk past nothing. Anything anyone can do to make it easier for local people to make the leap and make it possible to open a store is great."
Daou is still formulating his plan for the property and said he is open to suggestions. He wants to create something where small businesses can grow and work together to draw more people to Central Avenue.
"I'd like to see a lot of local businesses have a chance at opening stores. It's tough for a lot of small retailers because landlords aren't ready to lease to businesses that aren't mature or (don't) have better financial capabilities," he said. He wants to offer them reduced rents and business support.
The project will be 50 to 70 percent retail, with the remainder going to residential rentals above the stores. Daou envisions an agricultural component next to the new construction in the Entertainment, Dining, Galleries, Etc. District, which is the area between King and 16th streets and Central Avenue from First Avenue N to First Avenue S.
He said he will hand-pick tenants to complement one another. "Content wins out over rent," he said. "That's our motto."
Daou, 40, has been in real estate for 18 years and started visiting St. Petersburg about four years ago. He says he's bullish on the city and recently bought a second home here.
His company, Openhouse, offers spaces for pop-up events in New York. Pop-ups — a growing trend, especially in big cities — host anything from a product launch to a restaurant that's open for just three nights. Openhouse has several large, white empty spaces that might house a loud, flashy fashion show one night and an intimate restaurant with rustic farm tables and a forest of potted trees the next.
It's possible he could include space for pop-up retail in the Central Avenue project. Daou, who is considering buying other properties along Central Avenue, said he will have a more concrete idea of his plans in a few months and plans to start building after that.
"I want local businesses with ideas to seek me out. I want this to be an organic process," he said. "I'm welcoming everyone who wants to come to us and has great ideas." (He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
Doris Bailey, who works at Designers' Consigner at 1033 Central Ave., has some thoughts.
"We need like a little, mini Mazzaro's. This whole area needs that or a bakery," she said.
"Or a place to get ice cream or frozen yogurt," added Lynn Camacho, who also works at the longtime women's consignment store. "Tourists come walking up and down here, and they would go there. I would, too."
"I'd like a decent place to eat, and some nice boutiques," said Carla Baker, a hairstylist and partner in Images by Anderson & Co. Barber Shop.
"Whatever he does, it will help connect all the different places along here," said William Anderson, a partner and barber at the shop, which is directly across the street from the pending project. "It will bring people here."
The cars that fill the parcel for Rays home games offer little to no business to area shops, he said. "People park, go to the game, spend their money at Tropicana Field, then leave."
Porterfield, the Plain Jane owner, would like to see more women's shops to catch up with all the bars along Central Avenue.
"Probably every single day people come in my shop and say, 'Please start carrying clothes,' " she said. But it costs more money for more space.
Porterfield pays $1,100 a month rent for her 600-square-foot store. Space on Beach Drive was closer to $5,000 a month. "Fourth Street was almost as expensive," she added.
Adele Gilmore, who owns Pickwick Antiques at 923 Central Ave., said she is interested in the new venture but concerned about where customers would park. She pays about $2,200 a month for rent, taxes and insurance on her small store filled with rare finds in all price ranges.
Will Fluman, who works at the store with her, added another point to consider: "Every time a neighborhood goes through a renaissance, the rent goes up."
Contact Katherine Snow Smith at email@example.com.