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Buyer of crime-ridden Citrus Grove Apartments vows improvements

ST. PETERSBURG — Citrus Grove Apartments, notorious for its tie to drugs, guns and murder, has a new owner who vows sweeping renovations to the rundown complex and a strategic campaign to rid it of crime.

The apartments near Tropicana Field and across from Campbell Park and John Hopkins Middle School have been bought by an out-of-towner. Dr. Richard Souviron, a Coral Gables dentist and forensic dentistry expert who testified against serial killer Ted Bundy, paid $2.4 million for the mustard-colored, 84-apartment complex at 731 15th St. S. It had been listed for $2.6 million.

Opened in 1972 under the auspices of local civil rights champion the Rev. Enoch Davis and his Bethel Community Baptist Church, by the 1990s the federally subsidized apartments had deteriorated into a ramshackle embarrassment.

More recently, the complex was the target of a massive manhunt for Nicholas Lindsey, the teenage killer of police Officer David S. Crawford. Citrus Grove also was the hangout of gang members convicted in the 2009 drive-by shooting of 8-year-old Paris Whitehead-Hamilton. One of the assault rifles used to fire 56 rounds into the child's home was found at the complex.

Now, promises Citrus Grove's new owner, "It's going to be a showplace.''

The buildings are going to be painted, spruced up, he said.

"We are going to do roofs,'' Souviron said. "We are going do central air conditioning."

And tackle crime.

"The back part of the property … we are going to light it up like the Tampa stadium and we're going to put an open fence around it, a high picket fence, so people can't hide behind it."

Souviron, 75, who will continue to live in South Florida, has hired business colleague Jorge Mederos to make sure it all happens.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which had to approve the sale so Citrus Grove could retain its Section 8 program, made the improvements a condition of Souviron's purchase.

Mederos says he will be "quarterbacking" the rehabilitation.

"Almost $300,000 is going to go into the property immediately,'' he said. "We are going to approach the chief of police and we are going to sit down with him to discuss how we can work hand-in-hand."

Mederos wants to meet with City Council Member Karl Nurse, who represents the area, "to see what he can do and what council can do, so that we are not the only ones trying to clean up Citrus Grove."

Nurse is relieved that the property is in new hands.

"Citrus Grove has been the anchor in terms of reinforcing gangs and drug dealing and poor physical conditions for many years, so if we can see the visible, physical improvements … I believe we can use that to leverage significant improvement to surrounding neighborhoods," he said.

Souviron is not oblivious to the task ahead.

"Obviously, there's a huge financial challenge (and) getting all residents onboard," he said as he headed to his ranch in Wyoming. "I am looking forward to the residents pulling on the same end of the rope as me."

HUD insisted Souviron put $278,000 in escrow for repairs. HUD also required that the sellers, Bethel Community Heights — the nonprofit established years ago by Bethel Community Baptist Church to handle the apartments — give back $450,000 from the sale's proceeds for what HUD spokeswoman Gloria Shanahan described as "past issues.''

Of the sum Bethel Community Heights was forced to give up, $140,076 will go to repairs. Another $180,000 must be used to reimburse tenants whose utility deposits had not been returned, with whatever remains also going to repairs. Additionally, HUD demanded $129,924 because of "irregularities."

Bethel also had to settle a $1.6 million loan payoff to HUD.

The Rev. Manuel Sykes, pastor of Bethel Community Baptist Church, wants to use the proceeds from the sale to build affordable housing for senior citizens. That would comply with Internal Revenue Service regulations, which require that the money be used to carry out the nonprofit's original mission, which was to promote affordable housing.

Sykes has blamed the mismanagement of Citrus Grove on the Bethel Community Heights board, which he said had been controlled by nonchurch members until recently. He has mixed feelings about the sale of the apartments.

"It is bittersweet, because I believe the church back in that time embarked on something that was really good and really helpful,'' he said.

"The bitterness I feel is how that dream turned into a nightmare and to have to sell it now, the sweet part of it is that we will not be associated with something that is such a poor reflection of the original intent of that ministry."

For the past two years, the apartments have been managed by Royal American Management based in Panama City. The arrangement, made at HUD's insistence, has resulted in steady improvement at the property, Shanahan said. Mederos said he will be the liaison between Royal American and Souviron.

This will not be the first attempt to rejuvenate the apartments. After a $1.3 million makeover in the 1990s, the complex got a new name — Citrus Grove — replacing Bethel Community Heights. The old name never went away, though. The gang members who gunned down Paris called themselves the Bethel Heights Boys.

Mederos, who will continue to live in South Florida, said he will travel frequently to St. Petersburg to oversee the complex.

"We are going to be really hands-on to try to turn that property around," he said.

"I think we can do that. … It's in front of a school, for God's sake."

Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this article. Waveney Ann Moore can be reached at wmoore@tampabay.com or (727) 892-2283.

BY THE NUMBERS

$2.4M

sale price

$2.6M assessed value

7

buildings

84 1-, 2-, 3- and 4-bedroom units

4.5

acres

Buyer of crime-ridden Citrus Grove Apartments vows improvements 05/26/12 [Last modified: Saturday, May 26, 2012 5:31am]

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