ST. PETERSBURG — The past three years have not treated the Crislip Arcade or its surroundings well.
The vacant, historic storefronts on the 600 block of Central Avenue reek of urine. Colorful awnings and signs have been replaced by mismatched paint globs and fresh graffiti. Indoors, piles of doll heads, dusty books, rattan chairs and other abandoned merchandise sit on peeling tiled floors.
But there's an ambitious plan in the works aiming to bring back some of the vibrancy the block enjoyed as a shopping mecca built during the 1920s land boom.
City officials want to transform the bleak block into an artist colony by fall.
Up-and-coming artists and established art houses alike are being sold on the vision, which calls on the property owner to rent out retail space at a reduced price in exchange for free renovation and restoration work from tenants.
"It's a mitzvah," said Bob Devin Jones, a founder of the Studio@620, which plans to open an annex location in one of the empty stores.
The community effort, still in its planning stages, is already being heralded as a model for historic preservation and urban revitalization by local leaders.
The plan calls for retail space to be leased for up to $5 a square foot. Security deposits and down payments would be waived, and no rent charged until each artist opened his or her shop. City Hall would speed up the permitting process for new businesses.
In exchange, tenants would clear out any debris themselves, slap on a new coat of paint and complete any other needed improvements.
"It's really just a labor of love for a lot of people," said City Council member Leslie Curran, an art gallery owner who is overseeing the effort. "Everyone is tired of looking at the property as it is."
Constructed in 1926, the Crislip Arcade at 645 Central Ave. was where old St. Petersburg did its shopping.
But most of the stores from 601 to 659 Central, including those in the arcade, were abandoned in 2006 to make way for a $35 million condominium project. The project quickly flopped, but by then, the block was a retail cemetery.
"You just kind of looked over one day and realized it was dead," said Jessica Samsel, manager of Suncoast Medical Supply, which sits across from the arcade.
Homeless people took over the block, turning storefronts into bathrooms. Historic preservationists called on City Hall to do something, anything.
Last year, Thomas Gaffney, a private equity investor who dabbles in real estate, purchased the stores for $2.3 million.
Flush with complaints, City Hall called a meeting four months ago.
Officials asked Gaffney what he planned to do with the land.
Nothing, he replied. He wanted to wait for the economy to recover and sell the land at a profit.
That wasn't the answer City Hall wanted to hear.
Officials quickly sold Gaffney on the idea of renting the property out for at least five years.
"They've made this happen. I am just the property owner," he said. "I have never been a landlord like this, but nothing would make me happier to see that block with a lot of little stores doing well. I feel it is a community service."
Not one lease has been signed, but a tentative grand opening has been scheduled for October. More than 50 volunteers showed up for a recent cleanup. They hauled away yards of junk. Any suitable scraps were set aside for a future yard sale. Proceeds will go toward renovation costs.
Potential tenants include a gaggle of artists, a yoga instructor, a tattoo artist and a marketing firm.
"It's an extremely good deal," said Jones, who has been looking to expand Studio@620, located a block away on First Avenue S, for some time. "The building is such a special place. It demands to be cleaned up."
The project could open doors for struggling artists, proponents said.
Catherine Weaver was forced to close her Uniquely Original gallery on 16th Street S earlier this year because of low sales.
Moving downtown could introduce her work to the artists and art supporters already attracted to the area, she said.
"I always wanted to be on Central, but I never could afford it," she said. "So this is an opportunity to get where I always wanted to be."
Cleaning up the soiled store won't be a problem, she said.
"It's like a blank canvas," she said.
Cristina Silva can be reached at (727) 893-8846.