Like it or not, the city of Dunedin appears to have little choice but to stay the course on a long-delayed plan to redevelop downtown's eastern gateway. Commissioners have once again extended Pizzuti Builders' deadline to break ground until next April. Now all parties need to work hard to make sure there isn't yet another deadline deferred.
Eleven years ago, the city bought the Gateway tract at the east end of Main Street for $2.1 million, planning to build a city government complex. Leaders later decided to sell the high-visibility parcel to a developer for a major project that would contribute to Dunedin's downtown.
In early 2007, the city selected Pizzuti, an experienced Ohio firm that intended to capitalize on the tract's location across the street from Mease Dunedin hospital by building medical offices. But that idea wasn't embraced by local doctors and then the economy began to sour.
Rather than purchasing the whole acreage from the city, Pizzuti bought only a little over half and a couple of privately owned adjoining tracts, then the project went dormant.
During the last couple of years, with signs of an economic recovery on the horizon, Pizzuti drew up plans for a three-story, mixed-use project including 24,000 square feet of shops and restaurants and 124 luxury rental apartments. Under a development agreement approved last fall, Pizzuti agreed to lease to own the remaining city-owned 1.7 acres and was given a deadline of Aug. 15 to start construction.
But company representatives came to the Aug. 7 City Commission meeting to ask for an extension. They had not been able to convince lenders that the project would be a success because, they said, there are no similar projects with high rental rates in Dunedin to use for comparison.
Successful apartment projects are sprouting in St. Petersburg and Clearwater, but those are too far away for comparison, they said.
So the developer asked for six or eight months more to recruit a local development partner who could contribute some equity and also knows the area well enough to persuade lenders the project can succeed in Dunedin.
Commissioner Ron Barnette politely raised the obvious question: How are others getting financing for apartments, but not Pizzuti? Commissioners Heather Gracy and Julie Ward Bujalski talked about their "delay fatigue." Mayor Dave Eggers said that at some point, "all the excuses need to go away."
"Next thing we'll hear is that the cost of construction has gone out of control," he said, adding, "Don't look for us to make up the difference in your land costs."
But commissioners tempered the mild scolding with praise for Pizzuti's continuing commitment to the project. They voted unanimously to extend the deadline until April 15.
Not that they had much choice. The city owns less than half the land now. Even if it could buy back some of the land (it's not for sale), starting over with a new developer could take years. And Pizzuti, which says it has invested more than $4 million in the project already, is still hanging on to its vision of building a high-end gateway project.
Like partners in a three-legged race, the city and Pizzuti have no choice but to hobble forward together in pursuit of a new teammate with deep pockets and a convincing pitch for lenders. It's in both their interests that they succeed.