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New owner begins rehab of notorious Citrus Grove apartment complex amid hope and frustration

ST. PETERSBURG — Dr. Richard Souviron threw a barbecue for his new tenants. Hot dogs and hamburgers. Chips. Soda. Even a bounce house for the little ones.

One could say, though, that the patrol cars were a bit incongruous. The celebration drew an assistant police chief, a major and several community police officers to what Souviron hoped would be the launch of a new era for the troubled apartment complex he bought for $2.4 million.

"I think those people, the majority are good people," he said of residents at the federally subsidized Citrus Grove Apartments near John Hopkins Middle School and Tropicana Field.

"They are down on their luck, but they are good people,'' he said. "Maybe I'm naive, but I believe if they have a nice place, they are going to take care of it."

But the Coral Gables dentist, who is counting on making a profit from his sizeable investment and hopes to turn the complex at 731 15th St. S into a showplace, is getting a dose of reality along the way.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which had to approve the purchase, made Souviron put $278,000 in escrow for crucial work, including three new roofs, central air conditioning, security lighting, a fence and exterior painting. Deadline to complete it all is Dec. 31.

Right now there is not enough money to renovate the long-neglected units and maybe even the exterior painting. And last week, even as roofers were completing their work, Souviron, 75, spoke of being frustrated that the new washers and dryers he had promised residents kept failing to arrive.

The new central air conditioning is weeks away and the 8-foot, wrought iron fence he wants to install at the back of the property to keep out troublemakers is higher than the city allows. He is hoping for a variance.

"The number one thing people said they wanted was the air conditioning. The number two thing was washers and dryers. And then the police, when I talked to them, said you have to do something about the back area," he said.

There also is the matter of the security cameras that are monitored in-house. The 84-apartment complex, which has been associated with high-profile crimes, was the home of Nicholas Lindsey, the teenager who shot and killed St. Petersburg police Officer David S. Crawford in 2011. At one time known as "crack haven," Citrus Grove also was the hangout of gang members convicted in the 2009 drive-by shooting of 8-year-old Paris Whitehead-Hamilton.

Souviron believes the complex would be safer if police officers could monitor its security cameras while on patrol.

"That's what I'm pushing to get done,'' even temporarily, he said. "It's my dream, since it's such a high-crime area."

But that's not likely to happen, police spokesman Mike Puetz said.

"We do see the cameras as being an enhancement to the security there, but in terms of the police coming in and monitoring them, there are technical issues and also the problem of providing a service to a private entity that others will think they should get," Puetz said.

Meanwhile, powerful flood lights with bullet-proof covers are going up at the rear of the property.

"The aim is to deter the crime that has been riddling Citrus Grove, by having additional lighting, by having additional fencing and working in conjunction with police and city officials and also to have residents take pride in their community," said Jorge Mederos, a Coral Gables real estate broker who is Souviron's consultant and is working with vendors and contractors to shepherd the repairs.

"We are doing the basic, most important things that will improve the morale of the community," he said.

HUD had labeled the low-income property "troubled," citing problems such as battered and unworkable appliances, mold, mildew and rampant mismanagement. HUD also had "strongly encouraged" former owners Bethel Community Heights — the nonprofit established years ago by Bethel Community Baptist Church to handle the apartments — to sell the property. That happened a few months ago, netting the nonprofit about $85,000 after the settlement agreement and closing costs.

As part of the settlement, HUD insisted that Bethel Community Heights set aside $140,076 for future repairs. The agency also made the nonprofit give back another $180,000 to reimburse tenants for utility deposits. Any money that remains will go to repairs, HUD spokeswoman Gloria Shanahan said.

City Council member Karl Nurse, who worked to bring change to Citrus Grove, is hopeful. "The person who owns it now, it's personal to him," he said.

"I'm very optimistic," said Lisa Brody, affordable housing attorney for Bay Area Legal Services in St. Petersburg, which has helped Citrus Grove tenants fight for apartment repairs over the years.

Souviron, who traveled to St. Petersburg to host the weekend barbecue, admits that his wife is not enthusiastic about his purchase. To her, the apartment complex is a money pit. He disagrees.

"If you put enough money in it and you show that you care, it's going to work," he said.

"Don't you think it is exciting to take something as bad as it is and turn it around?'' he said. "You just wait and see."

Waveney Ann Moore can be reached at wmoore@tampabay.com or (727) 892-2283.

New owner begins rehab of notorious Citrus Grove apartment complex amid hope and frustration 08/11/12 [Last modified: Saturday, August 11, 2012 4:31am]
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