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City builds at fastest pace in a decade

(ran East, South editions)

Renovations at Tropicana Field and building activity in the Carillon area gave St. Petersburg its biggest construction year in at least a decade.

At nearly $344-million, the value of new construction during the 1997 fiscal year that ended Sept. 30 more than doubled the previous year's total of $164-million.

"This is above and beyond anything we've seen before," said development services director Steve Wolochowicz, noting that the biggest construction year of the decade previously had been 1994, with nearly $178-million.

Most of the activity comes in the Carillon and Gateway areas in northernmost St. Petersburg, where companies such as Franklin Templeton, Raymond James and Western Reserve Life have invested tens of millions of dollars building or expanding office space. In Carillon, more than 1-million square feet of office space has been added in the past year.

A strong economy has helped spur residential renovations citywide, and the $344-million also includes various multimillion-dollar hospital building projects and much of the roughly $65-million being spent expanding and upgrading Tropicana Field.

The economic picture is still not as rosy as that of Tampa, however, where roughly $500-million in new construction was logged in 1996, said Jim Hosler, research director for the Hillsborough County Planning Commission.

Baseball is six months away, but so far it has generated little private development around Tropicana Field. And whereas Tampa has a 250,000-square-foot shopping mall and 21-screen movie theater in the works for Ybor City, St. Petersburg still has no imminent development proposals where the defunct Bay Plaza redevelopment project was planned in the downtown core.

At the same time, the downtown area is seeing more interest in residential development than it has in years, with two condominium high-rise projects planned. Overall, the heavy construction activity in 1997 bodes well for taxpayers next year because it increases the tax base.