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MAKING A $1B MARK IN ATLANTA

St. Petersburg's Sembler Co. plans a king-sized project, where people will live, work and shop.

Sembler Co. has unfurled plans for its first $1-billion development, the equivalent of a new downtown planned in the Atlanta suburbs of Dekalb County.

It's a big step for a St. Petersburg developer better known locally for BayWalk, Centro Ybor and hundreds of Publix and Eckerd Drug stores than for sophisticated projects with multiple moving parts.

And Briarcliff Town Center, a 107-acre redevelopment project, has lots of pieces.

Sembler agreed to buy a dated 1,000-unit apartment building from the local housing authority and is negotiating for three public high schools and a stadium that will be relocated. A 40-acre undeveloped public park sits in the middle.

Once the buildings are flattened, plans call for a mixed-use project considered huge even by Atlanta standards: 3,700 condo units and rental apartments, two hotels, 300,000 square feet of office space and 1.5-million square feet of retailing, about a quarter more space than Tyrone Square Mall.

Sembler has deals with four department stores to anchor ground floors of six-story buildings and two 20-story towers that would line two open-air shopping streets.

It's Sembler's seventh big mixed-use project in Atlanta, but executives are still getting used to the scale of a project four times larger.

"We check the pulse of our partners every time it gets a little bigger and they say keep going,'' said Jeff Fuqua, president of Sembler who spearheads the project.

To spread the risk, Sembler will act as master developer, splitting work among residential and hotel development specialists. Government okays are expected next year, completion in two more.

About 60,000 people work at nearby Emory University and the Centers for Disease Control in an urban area built in the 1960s that has no regional mall.

The project speaks to the transformation of a small, 45-year-old developer to compete with rivals flocking to build high-density, mixed-use projects in places where local governments welcome them. Parts of Briarcliff will be built at 100 units an acre, two to three times the density of what's allowed in the Tampa Bay area.

"Atlanta governments understand the solution to suburban sprawl and road congestion is densely developed communities where people can work, live and play,'' said Craig Sher, chief executive officer of Sembler. "The political climate in Tampa Bay is not ready.''

Indeed, a much smaller Sembler mixed-use project in northwest St. Petersburg is tied up in court with neighbors fighting density a fraction of what's proposed at Briarcliff.

While Florida governments are changing comprehensive plans to encourage more high density, mixed-use projects, experts think developers that know retailing have an advantage because many people prefer to be near shopping.

Sembler was rated the sixth- most active retail developer in the country in 2006, according to Chain Store Age, and is on track to open more than 3-million square feet of retail space in 2007. Two-thirds of the 10-million square feet of projects in the pipeline is mixed use.

"It's an exciting and changing time for this company,'' said Mel Sembler, the 76-year-old founder who has tagged his son, Greg, 45, as heir apparent. A Republican Party heavyweight named by the two Bush presidents as U.S. ambassador to Australia and Italy, respectively, the elder Sembler is fundraising for Mitt Romney in the 2008 presidential race.

Sembler has its share of strikeouts. The company got out of the regional mall business long ago after being outflanked by a bigger player in Melbourne. In Ybor City, Sembler lost Centro Ybor in foreclosure. "Ybor was the biggest mistake I ever made,'' Mel Sembler said.

The company payroll, meanwhile, rose by 60 to 160 in three years as Sembler honed specialties in mixed-use master planning and started learning residential development. Sembler now owns a few apartment buildings in Atlanta, is a partner in the downtown St. Petersburg high-rise condo Ovation and plans 90 units of affordable housing in Lealman between Pinellas Park and St. Petersburg.

"We once developed within a two-hour drive of St. Petersburg,'' said Greg Sembler, vice chairman who takes take over as chief executive next July. "Now it's within a two-hour flight.''

Mark Albright can be reached at albright@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8252.

By the numbers: Sembler's Briarcliff center

$1B Cost of the mixed-use project near Emory University in Atlanta.

3,700 Planned condo units and rental apartments. The plan also calls for two hotels.

300,000 Square feet of office space.

1.5m Square feet of retailing, a quarter bigger than Tyrone Square Mall.

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