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St. Petersburg's theaters to wait

(ran LA edition)

The longer it takes to get the land, the longer it will take to get a downtown movie theater, the Bay Plaza Cos. president warned the City Council on Thursday.

Several hours later, Bay Plaza president Robert L. Jackson's hope of acquiring downtown land for a 24-screen movie theater and retail complex was delayed a little longer.

A circuit court judge set a May 11 hearing for the city's condemnation lawsuit against the owners of six parcels Bay Plaza needs to build the theater and shopping district in the block and a half bounded by Central Avenue and Second Avenue N and First and Second streets.

The case had originally been scheduled for January, and later reset for March.

"I am sure that we are all frustrated that it has taken as long as it has," Jackson told Council members. Still, as long as the case remained in court, negotiations with potential tenants for the project were unavoidably stuck in a "holding pattern," Jackson said.

Generally, he said, retail stores need 18 months to four years in lead time to relocate. So, as long as Bay Plaza, the city's partner in redevelopment of the downtown area, is unable to offer a firm time line for condemning land for the project, the retail stores can't plan ahead much, he said.

"Most of the retailers really want to go on hold and have gone on hold" pending word from Bay Plaza and St. Petersburg's search to attain the land, Jackson said. "It's literally been forced to go on hold at this time other than what you would call generalized discussions."

The condemnation case is bound to take a while, City Attorney Michael Davis told City Council members.

"I think that this is a very major piece of litigation," Davis said. "It is not unusual in large, major pieces of litigation to have continuances."

In 1989 the city formed a public-private venture with Bay Plaza to redevelop six blocks of downtown into a shopping and entertainment district. As part of the deal, the city agreed to use its powers of eminent domain to assemble land for the developer. Bay Plaza will reimburse the city for the land cost and some legal fees.

In January, lawyers for the owners of the six properties asked for a continuance in the case. They argued that they were not receiving all the documents they needed from Bay Plaza and the city in order to try their case, said Michael Gaines, a Clearwater lawyer for one of the property owners.

The owners are not trying to slow down Bay Plaza's work with legal delaying tactics, Gaines said. "Absolutely not," he said. "The only thing we wanted all along was to have adequate time to prepare."

On Thursday, lawyers on both sides agreed to a May 11 hearing date during a hearing that lasted less than an hour before Circuit Judge David Seth Walker, said Davis.

Despite the slowdown, Jackson said he felt confident about talks with potential tenants and with the movie chain, American Multi-Cinema, which has not signed a formal lease with Bay Plaza.

"I don't see any impediment," Jackson told the council.

Aside from the court fight, signs are positive, he said.

Recent business journals have reported a return by retailers to cities' downtown areas, Jackson said. And indications that AMC might create a theater project in downtown Tampa would not infringe on St. Petersburg's plans, he said. The two locations would not be competing for an audience, he said.

Last fall, Jackson said that even if condemnation proceedings take until October 1995, Bay Plaza still could finish building in time for the June 1997 completion date set in the developer's agreement with the city.