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One-way ticket to retro renewal

It isn't like downtown living, and it's not supposed to be.

Along several blocks west of downtown, First Avenue N is getting a string of small, mostly residential projects that add up to something of substance. They represent a return to the past, when it was more commonplace for a building to hold both home and office or home and store. New zoning is once again allowing it.

"I believe downtown St. Petersburg has maxed itself out. So it's moving west," Judiann Wright-Cummings said of emerging development. She and her husband, Michael Cummings, plan to build 10 townhomes at 2444 First Ave. N.

Several blocks east is Grand Central Lofts, a renovated commercial building that now has four residential units and a small commercial space where Enlightenment Candle Cafe will open in February.

"We wanted to give a choice to St. Petersburg," Bob Jeffrey, the city's manager of urban design and historic preservation, said of the lofts. He and his family developed them.

Across First Avenue is a single-family house under construction. It will have three bedrooms and two bathrooms in 1,400 square feet. Developers will finish it as a residence or an office.

These three are among eight projects either planned, built or under construction on First Avenue N between 22nd and 29th streets.

The city's relatively new urban village zoning allows mixed-use projects that include both commercial and residential. First Avenue isn't the first place where it has happened, but it's not yet common along such busy corridors.

First Avenue N is a mix of separate business and residential buildings, some of the commercial such as law offices in renovated bungalows that used to be homes. Doctor's offices, car repair shops, gasoline stations and title companies are among the businesses that dot the area.

The Cummings development, to be called Urban Village One in a nod to the zoning, has been planned for several years but only now is getting close to construction. Wright-Cummings said she hoped to begin in a month or so.

Two of the units will face 25th street and eight will front First Avenue N. The townhomes will be three stories and range from 1,600 to 1,900 square feet with two bedrooms and two bathrooms, Cummings-Wright said. Pricing begins at $220,000, she added.

Urban Village One fits the new zoning because the first floor includes a garage and space that can be used for a business.

"What it means is this: People can live and work in the same place. They can have the office on the first floor and their shingle out front," Wright-Cummings said.

Jeffrey, the city's historic preservation manager, lives in the renovated grocery now called Grand Central Lofts. His unit faces the busy avenue. Inside his loft, however, it is quiet. Traffic sounds are blocked by windows designed to seal out the noise. While preserving special features of the building, such as the Cuban tile floors, renovators added modern conveniences.

"I think you will see more and more of this here," Jeffrey said. "There is a plethora of single-family homes. This is a way to change and get different type housing. And the corridors (such as First Avenue N) are the way to do that."

Jeffrey recently bought the small cottage complex across 23rd Street from the lofts. He is repainting and adding landscaping to the three units that used to be crack houses.

Jeffrey and his family also plan to develop the vacant lot on the west side of the lofts by building a four-unit building similar to the renovated grocery. Because he wears both city official's and developer's hats, Jeffrey said he does not ask for variances.

"If anything, I get treated a little tougher, and rightfully so," he said of the project approval process.

Jeffrey said it probably will be 2006 before action begins on the second building. Meanwhile, he still has one loft to sell. It is $249,000 and has 1,350 square feet with two bedrooms and two bathrooms. The floor plan is such that one bedroom could be used as a business or studio with its own entrance.

Enlightenment Candle Cafe will open in the front corner of Grand Central Lofts. P.J. Christopher Eckert is the owner and candlemaker. He will offer a menu of specialized candles. Eventually, Eckert plans to add a real cafe with coffees and sandwiches.

The Florida bungalow style single-family home at 2427 First Ave. N is being built by Bob Churuti and Courtnay Hamilton. They are members of the Hamilton family that sold the 400 block of Beach Drive to Opus South Corp., which is building a luxury high-rise condominium building there.

"I think the new zoning has created a little bit of excitement," Churuti said. The house is designed to be either a home or an office. Developers originally planned to leave out the kitchen if the house was bought for a commercial venture. But Churuti said one lawyer who talked to him about it said he would love to have a kitchen in his office because he loves to cook.

Boley Centers for Behavioral Health Care is building 18 apartments at First Avenue N and 28th Street. They are in the Craftsman design like a number of the bungalows in the area. Boley has a system of residences for its clients.

Finally, there is a vacant area at First Avenue N and 22nd Street. It has six lots and has been for sale for a decade, according to Denise Reilly of Premier Group GMAC Real Estate in St. Pete Beach. The owner wants to sell as a block and is asking $695,000 for the land.

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