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An old mode returns

Marylyn Lowe has her first cup of tea in the rooftop garden outside her apartment on Central Avenue. When she is ready for work, she walks downstairs, out the side door and then around through the front door to open SoHo South, an art, framing and gifts gallery.

Bret Trifler leaves Central Thyme cafe and catering, which is next door to the gallery, goes in the side entrance and up the stairs to the rooftop garden and picks a handful of basil leaves for the soup he is making for lunch patrons. If he or partner Barry Jones needs a nap or a shower during the long restaurant/catering hours, they go upstairs to their apartment.

"I do some really strange hours," said artist Bruce Anders. Speaking of a recent work evening, he said: "I stayed up until 1 in the morning and then turned off the light and went to bed."

These people living and working at Central Avenue and 20th Street N are part of a building configuration returning to St. Petersburg: mixed use. It has been talked about a lot lately in connection with new developments. But SoHo South probably is a good example of the old-style mixed use.

While some of the new condominium buildings have street-level shops, there is little integration of commercial and residential, said Bob Jeffrey, manager of urban design and historic preservation for the city of St. Petersburg.

Those shops are there as a result of requirements by the city to keep condominium towers pedestrian friendly. "That is about trying to create a design aesthetic. That is why the city mandates retail on the first floor," Jeffrey said.

But it is not true mixed use as it once was in St. Petersburg and other cities. "People who live in the towers have their own entrance," said Jeffrey, noting the distance between the building uses.

Early in the life of the city, mixed use was common, Jeffrey said.

"The idea was without an auto and a way to get around, you got all the local needs met within a couple of blocks of where you lived.

"It was all part of daily life and the course of a social network," Jeffrey said.

He recently moved into an old grocery building nearby on First Avenue N. It has been converted to lofts and has a little commercial space. Jeffrey said when he walks his border terrier, Frannie, at night, he sees the SoHo shop owners closing up and has gotten to know them. He also patronizes the cafe.

Once the automobile became a common mode of transportation, a separation of the residential and commercial began, Jeffrey said. Buildings that had both businesses and residences began to deteriorate.

The Lowes bought their building six years ago. Deteriorated probably is a kind word to describe it, they both said. At one time it had been a restaurant supply warehouse. When the Lowes came along, it had been vacant for a number of years.

They renovated the space for the gallery first. It takes two of the five storefronts in the ground floor of the two-story building. The cafe has a third. Grand Designs, a new custom decor and furnishings shop, opens in another storefront Monday. It is owned by Carol J. Smith and Mario Farias. Next door is Alex-Paras Needlearts, owned by Kondylo Katsarakes and open since February of 2002.

Two other shops are attached to the west side of the SoHo building but they not part of it, Marylyn Lowe said. Those shops are RoCo Traders, a home furnishings shop, and Silk Road Needle Arts.

Upstairs in the SoHo building are 11 apartments and studios, three of which are still being renovated and one that soon will be vacated, said Lowe.

Lowe and her husband Bob live in a 1,300-square-foot home they fashioned out of two apartments.

"Up here you are totally away from everything outside," said Marylyn Lowe, adding that the street noise has become commonplace.

"It's better than living in any house," Bob Lowe said. "The only way you can get ahold of us is by telephone. There's no doorbell."

The apartments ring the second-floor courtyard garden. Anders lives in a small apartment near the Lowes. Artist Camille Brewer has two; she works in one and lives in the other. Trifler and Jones have one of the apartments but it is not their full-time home, Trifler said. Collage artist Kay Keeling has a studio in one apartment as does mural artist James Spruill, Marylyn Lowe said.

Rent ranges from $250 for the smallest to the $700 to $800 range for the bigger ones under renovation. Enough artists have congregated at the Lowe's building that they have named themselves the Rooftop Artists at SoHo South.

"The creative juices get flowing when you get a lot of artists sharing space," Anders said. SoHo participates in monthly gallery walks. All the ground floor shops open their connecting doors and those interested also can visit the upstairs and tour the galleries that ring the courtyard garden.

What the SoHo South building at 21st Street and Central Ave. looked like before the renovations turned it into a complex, which includes Central Thyme, among other shops, with residences on the upper floor.

Marylyn Lowe, 66, owns SoHo South and lives in an upstairs apartment. Behind her is an acrylic and glitter artwork on canvas titled Migration by Bruce Anders, who also lives above.

This renovated building is now home to Central Thyme, a catering business and cafe and part of the SoHo South complex at 2101 Central Ave. in St. Petersburg.

Co-owners of Central Thyme cafe and catering Bret Trifler, 34, left, and Barry Jones, 38, sit at a table in the cafe on the ground floor of their renovated building. Their apartment is upstairs.

The courtyard on the rooftop of SoHo South includes fresh herbs among the plantings that are used in the Central Thyme cafe on the ground floor.

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