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Developers buy block at center of downtown

The developer of the Omni International Mall in Miami and a local developer have purchased a downtown block for $4-million and are conducting a study to find out "the highest and best use of the property.

"Our interest is in a hotel/retail type of development," said Tibor Hollo, who has been a developer in Miami for 46 years. "We have to ascertain if such a facility is needed in the conventions the city attempts to attract."

He said city officials had an interest in continuing retail near the new BayWalk complex and a convention type hotel.

The two-month study should be finished in August, Hollo said. His company, Florida East Coast Realty, has built some 25-million square feet in Miami, he said.

The block at issue is considered ground zero downtown, said Kevin Dunn, managing director of development coordination for the city. The block is bounded by First and Second streets and Central and First Avenue N.

"A mixed-use block in my eye would be ideal _ mixed meaning retail, office, residential and hotel," Dunn said. "We would like to see whatever they could put together to encourage mixed use."

Hollo and local developer Jimmy Aviram formed Tropicana Partners LLC to develop the property, which they purchased in June from Fifth by Beach Partners Ltd. It is one of the oldest blocks in St. Petersburg and lies between the BayWalk and South Core garages.

The Tropicana office building at 25 Second St. N is the only structure on the block and takes up about a quarter of the land. The rest is used for parking.

Aviram owns both the Beach Park Motel on Beach Drive and Maximo Marina on 37th Street S.

Hollo said he knew of St. Petersburg through Aviram, who approached him about the Second Street N property.

Fred Bullard of Fifth by Beach said he and Van L. McNeel bought the block from the J.C. Nichols Co. in 1997. J.C. Nichols was the Kansas City developer that was one of the partners in the Bay Plaza Cos. The city hired Bay Plaza Cos. in 1986 as its master developer to remake downtown, but the company built only the South Core garage with two floors of retail space rather than the grand downtown mall it announced. Bay Plaza left St. Petersburg in 1996.

"We bought everything J.C. Nichols had with the idea of approaching the city with a downtown redevelopment package, which we did with BayWalk," Bullard said.

He, McNeel and Mel Sembler were the forces behind BayWalk, the $40-million retail and entertainment complex that opened last fall with a Muvico theater and 24 shops and restaurants.

County property records show that Fifth by Beach Partners paid $520,000 for the property in 1997, but Bullard said that was not for the whole block. He could not recall the purchase amount but said it was more than $520,000 and that he and McNeel did not make $3.5-million on the sale.

Since the departure of Bay Plaza Cos., downtown has undergone drastic change for the better with the addition of BayWalk, three luxury condominium projects, smaller townhouse projects and rehabilitation of a number of buildings. It has a number of bed-and-breakfast inns, middle-size hotels and two large hotels, the Hilton and the Renaissance Vinoy Resort.

Still, groups like the NCAA have said that St. Petersburg needs more hotel rooms if the city hopes to host large national events like basketball's Final Four, or baseball's All Star Game.

Vinoy general manager Russ Bond said that his hotel's recently expanded conference center for conventions has been a success.

"It is allowing us to stay in competition from the group standpoint in a market that still hasn't caught on with most meeting planners, people likely to bring groups out of the Midwest or Northeast," Bond said.

Any time he can get meeting planners to St. Petersburg, the Vinoy ends up on the short list of competitors, Bond said. But the city does not have the reputation that keeps it in the minds of convention planners, he said.