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College's proposed land deal draws fire

St. Petersburg College should pay the city more than the $1 it has offered for prime downtown property, some council members said Thursday.

"What is the value of this property we are proposing to give away?" City Council member Earnest Williams asked. "We could make this property available for developers."

Council member Virginia Littrell agreed.

"To give anything more to St. Petersburg College or Florida International Museum in this downtown location is inappropriate," she declared.

The college has asked the city to give it the northern section of the land that Florida International Museum leases between Second and Third streets and First and Second avenues N.

In return, the college would build classrooms to bring up to 1,500 students downtown. And it would create a new, smaller home there for the struggling museum.

As part of the deal, the museum would give up the remaining 22 years on its lease for the whole site. After the museum moved off the southern half of the block to its new quarters, the city could demolish the former Maas Brothers Department Store building and sell the land to a developer.

A major new development on the prime site would continue downtown's revitalization and add property to the tax rolls, Mayor Rick Baker said. He has supported giving the college the northern section of the land.

After hearing the concerns at Thursday's meeting, Baker said the city should get both pieces of land appraised.

The appraisal would tell how much the city might get from a developer for the southern half of the block. And it would estimate the value of the piece the college wants.

"What you're really asking yourself is, "What's the value of the northern end of the block that you can't use for another 22 years?'

" Baker said, pointing out that all the land is now tied up by the museum's lease.

But the strength of the museum's rights under the lease is debatable. Earlier this year, the city notified the museum it was in default of the lease because it no longer stages "blockbuster" exhibits. The city later rescinded that letter, but reserved its right to assert a default again.

The museum always denied it was in default. But if a judge upheld the city's position, the lease would end and the city would be free to sell all of the land without giving the museum a thing.

Baker, who was formerly chairman of the museum, dislikes that scenario.

"I would hate to make it public policy when we're trying to develop as a cultural center to make a plan based on letting one of our museums fold," he said.

Council members will vote formally next week on whether to begin negotiating a contract with the college and the museum.

St. Petersburg College President Carl Kuttler said the idea of paying something for the land is "not a deal killer."