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Muvico sues BayWalk, alleges the shopping complex is in disrepair

ST. PETERSBURG — BayWalk's last remaining anchor tenant, Muvico Entertainment, is suing the owners of the nearly empty shopping and entertainment complex for neglect of the downtown property and breach of contract.

The lawsuit seeks unspecified damages from the owners, 153 2nd Avenue North Holdings, a Maryland company, and CW Capital Asset Management, a Massachusetts company, which maintains and manages BayWalk. Dozens of photos are attached to the 50-page lawsuit that the movie theater chain says show an "inoperable and unclean" escalator, damaged and rotting stucco, walls, and ceiling, "dangerous" debris cluttering walkways, all of which has resulted in the complex being "unkempt and potentially unsafe."

The neglect has led to "a continuing and substantial deterioration to the architectural and aesthetic elements of the BayWalk Center," according to the suit. "The dramatic decline in both timeliness and quality of repair — and in many instances, the complete lack thereof — has caused substantial damages to (Muvico)."

Officials with the defendants couldn't be reached. Thomas McGeachy, the managing principal of Cimenelli Real Estate Services of Florida, which manages the property, didn't return a phone call late Friday.

The lawsuit won't complicate the pending sale of BayWalk, said Kyle Parks, a spokesman for Colliers International Tampa Bay, a commercial real estate company handling the deal.

"Our hope is that this will be resolved by the time of the sale," Parks said.

And if it's not? "Let's cross that bridge when we come to it," Parks said.

A Colliers official had said they were close to selling the nearly vacant complex in late May. They reported receiving multiple offers for the property, which was listed at $8 million, and planned to name a new owner by June 8, a deadline that came and went without an announcement.

Although the sale has taken longer than many expected, Parks said that's not attributed to the lawsuit. The delay is because of the complexity of the project itself, Parks said.

This is not the first time that Muvico has publicly expressed frustration about the condition of BayWalk.

Last summer, Neil Bretan, CEO of Muvico Theaters, told the Times that he didn't like what he saw after visiting the complex. He said then that it needs a new paint job, new lights and signs, and new escalators.

"I've never seen an escalator rot," Bretan said. "The gaskets seem to be disintegrating. Wind-blown debris had gathered on it. It's got to be more inviting than that. You need curb appeal."

He blamed the theater's flagging attendance on the declining condition of BayWalk. From 2004 to 2009, Muvico's attendance at BayWalk dropped by more than 50 percent.

"They need to pick up a paint brush and show that they're doing something with the property so they keep prospective tenants interested," Bretan said.

CW Capital had told city officials and Muvico that it planned to spend $1.5 million to renovate the common areas of the complex and $4.5 million on repairs for tenant space. But those repairs never came.

Mayor Bill Foster has maintained that there isn't much the city can do to goose the project, calling it "private property" and outside of the reach of government action. Because CW Capital hadn't made repairs, however, Foster didn't sign the order ceding the sidewalk to BayWalk, making moot the controversial City Council vote in 2009 that aimed to steer protesters and teens away from the complex.

Most council members echoed Foster's claim that nothing could be done.

When told about Muvico's lawsuit, Council Chair Jim Kennedy said: "Muvico has been a very good tenant. I don't know enough about their allegations, however, to comment."

Muvico officials decided to take matters into their own hands.

In a March 11 letter to CW Capital, Muvico's attorney, Stephen Kussner, wrote that the theater company "is very frustrated and dismayed over the current state of affairs at the BayWalk Center."

Kussner sought a meeting with Ciminelli and CW Capital officials to discuss the situation. By June, a Cimenelli official reviewed the property with a Muvico representative and compiled a list of minimal repairs necessary that included more than 40 items, including pressure washing the sidewalks, covering electrical outlets, fixing lighting, cleaning restrooms and removing signs from abandoned stores.

Those repairs were never made, the suit alleges.

Michael Van Sickler can be reached at (727) 893-8037 or mvansickler@sptimes.com.

Muvico sues BayWalk, alleges the shopping complex is in disrepair 07/22/11 [Last modified: Friday, July 22, 2011 7:32pm]
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