Is St. Pete ready for a 50-story skyscraper on Central Avenue?

The 400 block of Central Avenue has never seen a building as tall as the Red Apple Group's proposed tower. Some aren’t ready for that kind of development.
Published January 22
Updated January 22

ST. PETERSBURG — When a New York developer released a rendering last week of a proposed 50-story tower set to rise downtown, the immediate reaction from many could be summed up this way:

Yikes!!!

“Don't make St. Pete like Tampa,” wrote one commenter on the Tampa Bay Times Facebook page.

“Can't something smaller and prettier be built?” asked another.

“Just what St. Pete needs — another colossal building,” chimed in a third.

The mixed-use tower that the Red Apple Group wants to put on the 400 block of Central Avenue would be very, very tall. Its vertical reach will appear to be even greater given that no existing building within a few blocks to the north or south rises more than nine stories.

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Yet just a few blocks to the east are the new 41-story ONE St. Petersburg, the 36-story Signature Place and a veritable wall of high-rise condominiums along Beach Drive NE. Like many other fast-growing metropoles, St. Petersburg is becoming a city of tall buildings and that trend isn't likely to stop.

"Yes, on this particular block, this building is huge in comparison to its neighbors but I think over time what you're going to see in St. Pete is greater density in that inner core,'' said John Barie, an architect and an alternate member of the city's Development Review Commission.

The 400 block of Central is part of St. Petersburg's Downtown Center-Core District, an area that the city envisions as a "diverse and vibrant ... center for employment, entertainment and retail activity.'' As such, there are no limits on height although a public hearing is required if a building is taller than 450 feet, which the Red Apple tower almost certainly would be.

The tower also would need an evaluation by the Federal Aviation Administration to determine if its height would pose a hazard to planes using Albert Whitted Airport. But even if it were deemed a hazard, that wouldn't prevent its construction — both ONE St. Petersburg and the 29-story former Bank of America Tower on Central Avenue were classified as hazards, said Albert Whitted Airport Advisory Committee chair Jack Tunstill.

"The city zoning ordinance makes it a little harder (to build) if it comes back with a determination of hazard,” Tunstill said. “But if they go ahead and build it, the airport has to live with it.''

Red Apple's founder, billionaire John Catsimatidis, declared that "St. Pete needs a skyline'' when his company announced in 2016 that it was buying the 400 block of Central. But just because a building is very tall doesn't mean it has to be devoid of human scale, as some critics of Red Apple's proposal complain. Architects say much can be done at and near street level to mitigate the massiveness of a big building.

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"What happens in the first 90 feet (of height) has the greatest impact on the urban environment,'' Barie said.

As currently planned, the Red Apple tower would have a 200-room hotel, around 325 condos and possibly office space.

“You want to see what the ground-floor plan is,” Barie said. “The hotel is going to have to have a street presence, so how that is handled will be an important piece of the plan. Then I would imagine that because of that location it would also be considered prime retail space so there's the opportunity for street level retail.”

Adding a few floors of office space could also allay some of the immediate criticism of Red Apple's proposal — that St. Petersburg already has too many high-end residences and not enough people who can afford them.

“One of the things that I think is sorely missing in St. Pete is prime quality office space,” Barie said. “If you want to continue to see this city grow, one way is to bring good corporate, high-paying jobs. Companies that like an urban environment are going to want first-class office space.”

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Red Apple plans its tower for the block where Preserve the 'Burg unsuccessfully fought to block destruction of two historic buildings. With those gone, “there is less concern with the size and shape of the (proposed) building,” said the organization's vice president, Peter Belmont. “We would continue to have concern over how does it relate to the street, does it maintain an opportunity for local businesses along Central Avenue, which we support.”

Like many, Belmont said he was initially surprised by the proposed tower.

"It's a big building and in some ways I'm disappointed to see us go so big but that is the part of our downtown where big belongs,'' he said. "It's the edge of our downtowns I want to see protected from out-of-scale development.''

Contact Susan Taylor Martin at smartin@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8642. Follow @susanskate.

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