ST. PETERSBURG — Seamstress Lalanda Little said she sensed something was going on at Skyway Marina Mall.
Several businesses started to move in around October when they signed their leases. Business owners who spoke with the Tampa Bay Times said they knew the owners were planning on selling the building, but not for another two years.
But Little, who’s been a tenant for more than five years, noticed the lights in the parking lot were taken down a few weeks before Thanksgiving. So she reached out to a friend who worked for the city. That’s when she found out the building got approval for development and the building was going to be torn down.
The owners, Maximo Plaza Inc., filed for a demolition permit Nov. 22, according to city records.
Little and several other tenants said they were shocked. They reached out to the owners and claim they denied it. One of the newer businesses that launched in mid-November said her rent was raised after Thanksgiving, despite rumors of a sale.
Then last week, all of the businesses in the Skyway Marina Mall got a notice saying they had 30 days to vacate.
“We believe most of you were already aware that we had an interested party, however, what we were unsure of is the exact time line,” co-owner Baron Haghnazarzadeh wrote in the notice sent out Jan. 14. “We now know that information.”
“They were still trying to get money out of us. Even though they knew the place was being sold,” Little said.
In an email, Haghnazarzadeh said tenants, who pay on a month-to-month basis, knew that the property was in “escrow” and “due diligence was being performed on a regular basis.”
He also said he and his father Hilbert are looking for other properties to purchase in the area similar to the mall with hopes to bring over any Skyway mall tenants who want to join.
“I’m hopeful for what’s to come as the city is growing and expanding. I want to share in that growth with those who would like to continue growing with us in being a part of this business I cherish and have a passion for.”
Built in 1979 and formerly known as Maximo Mall and Maximo Plaza, the 112,000-square-foot shopping center has housed an array of businesses over the decades, from brand-name stores like Sears and Big Lots to a dine-in movie theater.
It’s now occupied by small, independent retailers and an 850-unit storage facility. The notice sent by Haghnazarzadeh said the building had many maintenance issues and a “litany of costly repairs” making it unprofitable to continue.
The property is under contract to sell in mid-February to developer Jack Dougherty and his partners, who have paid more than $15 million for the surrounding properties since 2019. They plan to build hundreds of apartments at a cost of more than $200 million.
Dougherty said he wasn’t party to last week’s round of eviction notices, but that the current owner, Maximo Plaza Inc., was required to send them out before the closing.
”I didn’t know about it, but I knew it had to be done,” Dougherty said. “Like with everything else, I feel bad for people that have to be displaced, because I know that’s challenging. On that level, I feel bad for them.”
Last summer, Dougherty received city approval to develop nearly eight acres on the mall site, including an eight-story, 400-unit apartment building; a 2,400-square-foot bank; a 4,500-square-foot drive-through, fast-casual restaurant; and a 95,000-square-foot self-storage facility.
Dougherty has tentative city approval for demolition, though he said the building has asbestos that must be cleared out first. He anticipates breaking ground on the $100 million project by August, with an opening by late 2024.
To the south of that project, on the site of a building adjoining the mall property, Dougherty is planning an eight-story, 154-unit senior living community that received city approval earlier this month. That project, he said, will cost between $50 million and $100 million.
”Those tenants are still there, and they will be moving out as well,” he said.
And one block south, on the site of Dougherty’s former Flamingo Resort at 4601 34th Street S, is a $50 million, eight-story, 254-unit apartment complex dubbed Marina Walk.
Event planner Naomi Forrester said the new residences in the Skyway Marina District caught her eye when she was looking for a place to move her business from Tampa to St. Petersburg.
“I was like, ok those could be good potential clients that are coming and maybe will want to throw parties or weddings or anniversaries,” Forrester said.
But now she’s putting many events on hold as she struggles to find a new place to relocate from the Skyway Marina Mall. The alternative options are far more expensive, she said.
“I am actually possibly looking at just moving out of state,” Forrester said if she couldn’t find a space by the time the mall closes.
Forrester explained she was aware that the building could be sold in several years when she signed her lease, but said she was shocked to find out days after her grand opening on Nov. 13 the building was being demolished.
“We contacted the owner and they just denied it. They actually increased the rents by 5 percent, requested it all in cash and said that the property was had not been sold, it was a rumor and that we were fine,” Forrester said.
The businesses inside the mall are scrambling ahead of the official closing on Feb. 13. But rent is astronomically high nearby, they said. Some are pairing up trying to see if they can split rents together for a new place, with little luck.
“Most of them I found over $2,000 a month. And that’s way out of my budget,” said Gwen Fields, owner of Vitu International. “Another vendor and I have agreed to share a space if we can find one. And even at that’s too much for the two of us.”
The city’s Skyway Marina District master plan, adopted in 2014, called it a “high priority” to retain existing businesses in the face of new development. The plan called for retailers and small businesses to receive assistance, including low-interest microloans, from the city’s Greenhouse small business development program.
The Greenhouse website says it’s “aware of the situation unfolding at the Skyway Mall” and calls for owners to reach out for assistance.
There’s also Saturday Morning Shoppe market on Saturday to support the Skyway Marina Mall businesses from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. offering raffles for Rays game tickets.
“We’re partnering with our vendors to get them explosive amount of money so these people can find a place to go,” said organizer Renee Edwards.