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NEW OWNER HAS LUSH VISION FOR DREARY APARTMENTS

Plaza Fifth Avenue will become Skyline Fifth after an extreme makeover.

Craig Knight aims to make his apartment project a catalyst for revitalizing the moribund and overpaved Central Plaza.

"We look at it as similar to the West Loop in Chicago," said Knight, of that city's Providence Management, which in 2006 paid $6.7-million for the Plaza Fifth Avenue apartment building.

"It was a transitional neighborhood that is now seeing an interesting regentrification."

The West Loop has seen old warehouse buildings turned into loft apartments and has become a hot spot for new businesses and offices.

Central Plaza could do likewise, which is why Knight is turning Plaza Fifth's 200 empty units into 178 Class A apartments.

"Sometimes people look at Central Plaza and think that's the way it has to be," said Tim Clemmons, who is doing the architecture for what will be renamed Skyline Fifth. "But an outsider says, 'Why?' "

The 12-story building dominates the air of Central Plaza. It was part of a 47-year-old development phase dating to when Central Plaza was the shopping district for the city. Commerce later moved west, then back east, but with the Grand Central District growing, Central Plaza may come back. Knight wants to house those choosing to live there.

They'll have to pay for it. After a top-to-bottom renovation, Skyline's rents will start around $1,000 a month for the smallest units, 700-square-foot one-bedrooms. But Knight says it will be worth it.

"We're taking this down to columns and slabs," he said. "There's not going to be any part of this building that will look, feel or taste like it was built in 1961."

Most startling about the renovation of the 190,000-square-foot building will be the seven two-story apartments on the top. Knight wanted to use the recessed 12th floor as living space, not as mechanical space, as it had been.

Clemmons said it was too expensive to extend the elevators, so the 11th-floor units will have stairs that run up to the extra level. The end units will have rooftop terraces measuring 12 by 34 feet.

"We call them townhomes in the sky," Knight said.

The ground-floor units will also be unique, with 15-foot ceilings in what had been designed as commercial space. Those on the west side will have private terraces that connect to a new pool.

The area around the building is soon to be home to a new Wal-Mart and has easy access to downtown, the beaches and Interstate 275, Knight said. The immediate grounds of the building are parking lots. The renovation will add some green space, but Knight said despite the asphalt, the views in the building are stunning.

From the top floors, you can see downtown, the Sunshine Skyway bridge, even the Don CeSar hotel in St. Pete Beach. The keen of sight can make out the gulf and the bay, but what lies in between, even from lower floors, is an expanse of trees.

"At four and five, you start to have incredible views," Knight said. "It feels like looking at Central Park from the Upper West Side."

Knight said that despite the $14-million rehab price tag, the apartments will make financial sense. Because his total cost is still less than that of a new building, rents will be competitive with the few comparable apartments left in the area, and less than mortgage payments for similarly appointed condos.

Skyline will not go condo, Knight said. Providence is an owner-operator of apartments and wants to stay that way. The company owns many rental units in the Midwest. It owns Lakeside Village on Fourth Street N. Providence also bought Portofino in North Tampa, an apartment building gone condo that the company has converted back to apartments.

The Skyline building was originally constructed as apartments for the elderly but later became low-income housing, Clemmons said. It sat empty for several years before Providence bought it.

"This was a very prominent building in its heyday," Knight said. "We want to return it to that status."

Paul Swider can be reached at pswider@sptimes.com or 892-2271.

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