When Blake Whitney Thompson paid $2.5 million for a former Masonic temple in downtown St. Petersburg four years ago, he said his goal was to build “something really special” that would preserve the property’s unique, funky character.
On Monday, he filed plans with the city to raze the temple and build a high-end condo tower.
The Blake Building, a 20-story, 51-unit tower would fill the space formerly occupied by the nearly 70-year-old temple at 114 Fourth St. S and a Regions bank drive-through next door. Plans call for street-level retail and a three-level parking garage. Estimated price tag: $40 million.
It’s not what Thompson originally envisioned when he bought the place, suggesting it could be converted into a food hall, music venue, winery, church, pool or any number of other uses. As the coronavirus pandemic stretched on, however, he no longer saw a path for those plans.
“We gave it a run,” said the CEO of private equity and real estate firm Blake Investment Partners. “I really thought it was going to be a cute little building. But ultimately we’re in the business of the highest and best use, and ultimately that’s not an economically viable option. It’s basically raw land, and we’ve got to do something with it to make money.”
Thompson said part of the problem was what it would cost to bring the temple building, built in the 1950s, up to code.
“You can’t keep St. Pete funky when — and I’m not faulting anybody — it costs $2 million to retrofit the building from a fire standpoint alone,” he said.
The Masonic temple has no historic protections, although the city recognized its marquee as a “sign of historic significance” in 2016. That’s not an official designation, said Derek Kilborn, manager of the city’s urban planning and historic preservation division, but it led Thompson to arrange with local Masons to have it preserved and moved to another temple.
The property sits less than 200 feet across Fourth Street from the old Tramor Cafeteria, most recently home to the Bavarian beer hall Hofbrauhaus. That site is a designated local landmark, Kilborn said, and its proximity could trigger a public hearing when Thompson’s site proposal comes up for review. Otherwise, the property sits within the city’s designated downtown center, meaning it would not require rezoning before construction.
Peter Belmont, a board member of preservation group Preserve the ‘Burg, said that while the temple isn’t exactly a local landmark, its style of architecture isn’t that common around downtown St. Petersburg.
“Most of what we’ve designated (as historic) are buildings that date back to the ’20s, which is a very significant period,” Belmont said. “Midcentury buildings, we need to look at those as well. It’s kind of sad that we would lose this building. ... Our hope would have been there would have been a way to use the building and incorporate it with new development. Sometimes there’s options to do both.”
The Blake Building sits at what has become a rapidly growing residential corner. To the southwest sit the Avanti and Beacon apartment buildings, both erected in the past five years. Across Second St. S, a Miami developer plans to break ground this month on a 24-story, 220-condo tower dubbed 334. And to the northeast, a New York developer is plotting a 46-story residential, retail and office tower on the 400 block of Central Avenue that would be the tallest building in St. Petersburg.
The Blake Building would offer condos ranging in size from about 1,500 square feet for a two-bedroom, two-bathroom unit to nearly 3,600 square feet for the three-bedroom, four and a half-bathroom penthouse. Thompson said it will feature building-wide WiFi and touchless elevators, plus health-focused amenities such as lap pools and balconies large enough for Peleton bikes.
If you think that sounds suited to a particular class of buyers, you’re not wrong.
“Admittedly, these are not inexpensive units, but the point of this was functionality and pragmatism,” Thompson said. “Peleton is not the cheap route to work out, but it’s super high-quality, super high-performance, super high-output. You hopefully get big results. We’re kind of thinking the same thing here.”
Blake Investment Partners owns and operates residential and commercial developments in states around the Southeast. St. Petersburg projects include the Walker Whitney Plaza condos along Fifth Avenue N, Trophy Fish restaurant and cocktail lounge Mandarin Hide. In 2018, Thompson and a partner filed plans to build a 25-story, mixed-use residential tower on the site of the Fit2Run store near Sundial before a land ownership dispute tied the project up in years of litigation.
Thompson said that while his attempt to “preserve some quirky stuff” about the Masonic temple didn’t work out, he’s excited about the designs his architects came up with.
“My name’s on it,” he said. “The thing I cared about the most was just that we didn’t go out with a building that in 20 years I’d be embarrassed of.”