The Sundial will be remodeled again, its new owners announced Thursday.
It’ll be the third time the St. Petersburg entertainment and shopping complex is set for a major multimillion dollar renovation in its 23 years. The center helped bring activity into an empty downtown when it was first built but then the situations flipped as the city center grew and the plaza struggled with empty storefronts for most of its history.
The new owners, local real estate firms Paradise Ventures and Ally Capital Group, are investing in a new look with more green space and modern improvements in hopes the place can complement the bustling downtown around it.
“You don’t have any real central area right now. Everybody either migrates up and down Beach Drive or the various parts of Central, the Warehouse District, the Edge District. This has got the opportunity to be a major attraction area,” Chuck Ernst, Paradise Venture vice president and chief financial officer, told the Tampa Bay Times last year after the firm bought the property.
So how did we get here?
Let’s take a look back at the different chapters of the plaza’s history and what’s in store for it next.
The BayWalk Era
Before it was the Sundial, the shopping complex on the 100 block of Second Ave. N was known as BayWalk.
Built in 2000 for $40 million by local developers Sembler Co., it came at a time when people were skeptical that downtown St. Petersburg could have an entertainment and shopping complex after previous attempts to be build one failed because they were “too grandiose for what was an anemic downtown in the 1980s and early 1990s,” according to a 2005 Times story.
But BayWalk was an instant success.
It drew 3 million people in its first year, according to archives, and continued to bring 3 to 4 million visitors annually during its first few years.
By 2005 it had a 20-screen Muvico Theater, restaurants, clothing shops, a game outlet, ice cream shop, jewelry store, pottery gift store and kiosks selling cell phones and flowers. The movie theater, which is still central to the location today, brought people from all over South Pinellas County since the closest theaters were either at Tyrone Square Mall, Pinellas Park or across the bay in Tampa. The theater helped not only attract tourists but brought locals back repeatedly.
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But that began to change in the late 2000s as many local outdoor shopping complexes like Bay Plaza and Centro Ybor struggled with shifting tides in retail such as Amazon’s emergence as an e-commerce giant. Shoppers pulled back discretionary spending during the Great Recession.
Downtown St. Pete also struggled with crime and protesters that kept shoppers away. Stores closed and the mall couldn’t refill many of them. The city of St. Petersburg allowed the mall to privatize the sidewalk in 2009 and the developers built walls around it.
By 2011, local businessman and part-owner of the Tampa Bay Rowdies and Mahaffey Theater, Bill Edwards bought BayWalk for $5.2 million.
He demolished the complex and its walls to pave something completely new.
Becoming the Sundial
After spending between $30 million to $40 million for remodeling the center, Edwards debuted the rebranded facility in 2014 as the Sundial.
At the front and center was a three-story tall sculptural fountain that the shopping center got its name from.
The metal sundial fountain, designed by Emmy-winning production designer Rene Lagler, had a blue mosaic lagoon made of 288,000 glass tiles and could accurately tell time using the natural element the Sunshine City is famous for. It had life-size bronze dolphins leaping out of it into the courtyard.
The 85,357-square-foot-shopping center boasted tenants like Ruth’s Chris Steak House, Sea Salt restaurant, FarmTable Kitchen, Locale Market, Lululemon, Tommy Bahama, Diamonds Direct, Happy Feet, Florida Jean Company, Swim n’ Sport, Marilyn Monroe Glamour Room, The Shave Cave, Chico’s and White House/ Black Market.
By 2016, the plaza’s staple Muvico Sundial 19 theater became an AMC as part of a $1.2 billion merger between AMC and Muvico’s parent company Carmike Cinemas.
Later, Edwards closed the gourmet grocery store Locale and FarmTable Kitchen and relocated tenants to make way for a food hall with the owners of Tampa’s Armature Works which was never built. During the pandemic, Edwards’ company Loan Rangers Acquisitions sued the owners of Armature Works in Hillsborough County court claiming they were stalling construction to lower the property’s value and buy the site off of him, using the pandemic as an excuse for not finishing it. The developers later filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy.
“The mall that I purchased was blighted,” Edwards said in a statement in 2020. “The Sundial today is a focal point for our community, it has given me great pride and happiness, and a sense of accomplishment. So I see it as a tragedy that one third of the Sundial is and remains vacant for reasons that have been beyond my control.”
In February 2022, Edwards sold the Sundial to Paradise Ventures and Ally Capital Group for $27.5 million.
After a year of waiting, the new owners announced Thursday they’ll transform the courtyard with greenery and an open-air bar and turn the retail center into a mixed-use development. The developers, who are partnering with local architecture firm Behar and Peteranecz, said it’ll be a multimillion dollar renovation but declined to comment on an exact number.
Renovations are set to begin this spring and finish by the end of the year, according to a release.
The developers said the renovations will help the shopping center transform into a social, economic and cultural center for the city.
“Placemaking is important, and the new Sundial is designed to be extension of the community,” said Andrew Wright, the CEO of Ally Capital Group.
While the main building infrastructure looks to be the same in design renderings, out of the picture is the iconic Sundial sculpture. The centerpiece artwork will be gone, renderings show, and replaced with a flat sundial on the grass. Also the large umbrellas will be taken out for smaller ones in the grass sitting areas.
While many things continue to change at this iconic but struggling mall, one thing hasn’t: the movie theater at the center for more than two decades.