Clearwater targets longtime downtown eyesore

The unfinished towering eyesore has been dormant for years. It might be demolished.
Published May 21 2015

CLEARWATER — Time may finally be running out for Clearwater's most notorious eyesore.

For nearly nine years, the unfinished Strand condominium tower has remained a barren concrete skeleton. Its 15-story shell looms over the eastern entrance to downtown, visible for at least a mile in every direction.

The city has fined the building's owners $188,500 for code violations since 2013, but that hasn't accomplished much. Officials think the owners have been paying the fines with the help of revenue from cellphone towers perched atop the structure.

Now the city is running out of patience and is ramping up its actions.

The fire marshal has declared the Strand an unsafe building. Officials have cut off electrical power to the property, disabling its cell towers. They've started to gather prices from demolition contractors. For the first time, the city is talking openly of knocking the whole thing down.

"We have an unsafe structure, and it's a pretty large one. It's not going to be allowed to just stay there in its current condition," City Manager Bill Horne said. "The status quo cannot continue to exist, and that's why a tear-down becomes part of the conversation."

"The only reason it's there now is because it provides the structure for a farm of cell tower antennas. Under our code, that's not the purpose of that building."

The structure at 1100 Cleveland St. was built in 1972. It was a mostly vacant office building by the time a developer bought it in 2004 for $5.7 million. Workers stripped the tower to its bones, preparing to convert it into 88 high-end condos complete with a concierge, pool and spa.

When the economy went bust, the work stopped in 2009 and never really started up again.

Its current owner is Espacio USA, a Miami-based subsidiary of a Spanish company. The company's website and listed phone number no longer work. Its Tampa-based lawyers wouldn't respond to phone calls or emails seeking comment.

The nearly 200,000-square-foot structure at Cleveland Street and Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue has long been for sale. The asking price was $16 million, then $12 million, and most recently $8 million.

It's an open question as to whether the building's weathered concrete and exposed steel beams can even be used. Five years ago, Espacio was required to test the steel for rust. The company reported that some minor surface rust could be eliminated with wire brushes.

A Chicago investment group seriously considered buying the structure last year, then changed its mind after taking a closer look.

"It's been exposed to the elements in a saltwater environment," said Casey Babb, a former listing agent for the building. "It's not for the faint of heart."

Party spot

In the intervening years, the towering concrete shell has become a hangout for high school partiers and an illegal shelter for homeless people.

One night last week, two teenage boys were found on its roof, said Clearwater police Chief Dan Slaughter. They had lifted up a chain-link fence, then slipped into the structure by using a ladder that had been left at the site.

Meanwhile, across Cleveland Street, developers have broken ground on a large complex of 257 high-end apartments on a nearly 7-acre vacant lot. The city views that development as a way to pump much-needed energy into downtown.

In the case of the Strand, however, the city has deemed it an abandoned structure and has been fining Espacio $250 a day for code violations. The company has paid $107,750 in fines so far and has an outstanding balance of $80,750, records show.

Now the city is going a step further, calling the Strand an "unsafe" structure, not just abandoned.

"There are dangerous electrical situations in there. There's rebar sticking up — all kinds of hazards," Clearwater building official Kevin Garriott said. "People have been living in there on all levels, climbing as high as the 15th floor."

City officials are ordering the building's owner to secure the property. Espacio responded this week by hiring a contractor to seal off the building's lower floors more thoroughly, according to city documents. Also, the company's CEO told the city that Espacio had ended its lease with the cellphone towers atop the structure, officials said.

Ultimately, the city is trying to get the building's owner to either sell it, develop it or demolish it.

"If the owner doesn't bring the building into compliance, the city can proceed with demolition," Garriott said. "We're getting estimates of what it would cost to take a building like that down."

The ballpark estimates so far: A cool $1 million.

Contact Mike Brassfield at [email protected] or (727) 445-4151. Follow @MikeBrassfield.