ST. PETERSBURG — One critic said it would block some of the sunshine from the Sunshine City. Another said the now-vacant site should become a park honoring famous Greeks. Still others lamented "the rush to construction.''
Despite the nay-saying, the city’s Development Review Commission on Wednesday unanimously approved site plans for a $300 million mixed-use project on Central Avenue that could include the tallest condo tower on Florida’s West Coast. Although the developer, New York-based Red Apple Group, still must meet several conditions, site preparation work could begin this spring on the 45-story tower, a 20-story hotel and a 842-space parking garage.
"It may seem like this is rushing through, but we’ve been working with the city for over two years on this project,'' said attorney R. Don Mastry, who represents Red Apple.
At the city’s behest, Mastry said, the developer included 20,000 square feet of first-class office space and more room for cars than required, a move that would help alleviate the chronic parking shortages downtown. He also stressed that the project is planned for an area of the city with the highest allowable densities and building heights.
"If we can’t put a big building here,'' he said, "we can’t put a big building anywhere in St. Pete.''
Because of the relative proximity to Albert Whitted Airport, Red Apple will need approval from the Federal Aviation Administration for a condo tower proposed at 515 feet. That would exceed the height of ONE St. Petersburg, a recently completed 456-foot tower a few blocks to the east that now holds the height record.
To build as big as it plans, Red Apple also will have to buy development rights from existing buildings. That helps preserve historic buildings such as the Snell Arcade whose owners are limited in what they can do to their own property.
Several people spoke in favor of the project, including a ONE St. Petersburg resident, engineer Mac Roopani..
"It’s a beautiful building, it’s going to do a lot of things for downtown St. Pete,'' he said. He added that he particularly liked the office space: "It’s going to bring in a lot of jobs.''
The project would take up all 2.27 acres of the 400 block of Central Avenue. Renderings released as part of a public file show the 20-story hotel on the west side of the block, and a building of about six stories facing Central with parking, shops and offices. The 45-story condo tower rises at an angle on the east side of the block. The corner of Fourth Street and First Avenue S would become a large, landscaped pedestrian area with room for outdoor restaurant seating.
The tower would dwarf the eight-story building to the south that contains the Tampa Bay Times headquarters, and the 17-story BB&T building to the east.
"In New York city, a 45-story building probably is not even considered (tall),'' Jim Simmons said. "I’m opposed to 45 stories here, I think it’s out character.''
Victoria Paradise called it an "amazing project,'' but said "I just don’t think it belongs in St. Pete.''
"It seems all of a sudden we’re going full forward from a city of the nearly dead to a city of large construction,'' she said.
As a condition of Red Apple’s $16.5 million purchase of the block two years ago, the previous owners tore down existing buildings but left the mature trees and sodded and landscaped the area. That created an oasis of green in the heart of downtown that many office workers and residents now enjoy walking past.
Richard Prior, who lives a few blocks away, said the condo tower would "block out the sun'' and suggested that John Catsimatidis, the Greek-born billionaire who founded Red Apple Group, leave the area the way it is.
Said Prior: "What a contribution it would be if he dedicated the area to a park to honor famous Greeks ... like Aristotle or Telly Savalas.''