New owners, plans for several St. Petersburg 'Blue Chip' properties

Published Oct. 16, 2012

ST. PETERSBURG — Land sales are up. Permitting is up. And excitement is up in the city's economic development office as nine of the 16 properties advertised for sale less than a year ago as "Blue Chip" sites are now sold or under contract.

"Things are really happening," said Sophia Sorolis, manager of St. Petersburg's Economic Development Division. "I think the economy is starting to rebound and people are wanting to get into the market."

The city issued 13,869 building permits the first nine months of fiscal 2012 compared to 12,701 for all of 2011 and 11,576 in 2010.

"The Pinellas County land market has shown a drastic change due to the apartment developers who are back looking for sites," said Ryan Sampson, a broker with Eshenbaugh Land Company who handled two of the sales. "Activity is being driven heavily by the apartment market getting strong rents and financing as well as the townhome guys and home builders who are actively looking for parcels in Pinellas."

Indeed, three of the Blue Chip parcels are slated for apartments.

A Miami developer called American Land plans a 13-story apartment tower on a 2.8-acre site just south of the downtown Publix.

"I was really impressed with the depth of the retail, dining and entertainment throughout the waterfront. Usually, everything develops nicely around the water, but that wasn't all here," said Granvil Tracy, American Land president. "Almost all the way to the stadium you still have businesses, dining and entertainment."

Atlantic Housing in Winter Park is planning 125 residential units on 1.5 acres at Third Street and Fourth Avenue S. Sampson handled the sale of the $2.5 million parcel. It was originally listed for $3 million.

Site plans for an eight-story building with 324 apartments on half of a city block across from Hotel Indigo have been approved by the city. California-based Mill Creek plans to build Bayway Apartments on the property that is still listed as owned by Wells Fargo in county records.

"If you can find land for it you can sell it to home builders," Samson said. "The pricing is not 2006 pricing. The market has reset back to what it was selling for in 2001 or 2002."

But not all of the Blue Chip sites selling are for residential uses.

Great Bay Distributors bought the 96-acre site in the Gateway area along Interstate 275 for $10 million from BB&T Bank. The company plans to build a distribution center on the parcel, just north of Gandy Boulevard. It will consolidate its current Largo operations into the new facility that should open within three years.

"Properties are moving because they are coming out of foreclosure or (sellers) are getting more realistic about their pricing," said developer Phil Farley. He bought a 2-acre city block with three warehouses on 22nd Street S in June for $700,000 that was on the Blue Chip list. Farley is talking with various tenants who are considering the space for art studios or a microbrewery. Vertical Ventures, an indoor rock climbing gym in Tampa, has also expressed interest.

Several of the property names on the city's Blue Chip list conjure up memories and dashed hopes from the past. Many are still labeled with the titles previous owners with earlier visions gave them.

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The Great Bay site was once La Entrada, the mixed-use development proposed by developer Grady Pridgen. Pridgen also owned the downtown property where Bayway Apartments is set to go up. He planned Bayway Lofts there about a decade ago, envisioning a $50 million to $100 million mixed-use development that would rise 42 stories and include a hotel and rooftop restaurant.

The site where Atlantic Housing plans to build 125 apartments was once the Edge. Developer Frank Maggio had hoped to break ground on a 40-story, 189-unit luxury condominium tower there in 2008.

The city's Blue Chip link on its Web page refers to a 1.6 acre vacant lot on Central Avenue at Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Street as Tamarind. The investors who recently bought it will rent space there for parking during Rays games. At one point, Maggio planned a 270-unit condo project with two towers, one 22 stories high, and a specialty grocery there.

As the sites are reincarnated by new owners and developers, the plans aren't as grand. Apartments, a distribution center and a parking lot. Perhaps that makes them more likely to come to fruition.

"When somebody comes in for building permits we feel pretty good about that," said Dave Goodwin, the city's planning and economic development coordinator, pointing to the proposed Bayway Apartments. "We hear good things about other projects that are not in for permits. The good thing is the sites are assembled. A lot were assembled during the last boom."

Many of the proposed apartment projects will bring more young people to downtown and more customers for its businesses, he said.

While the city's Blue Chip marketing effort and online map isn't directly responsible for the sale of any of these properties, Sorolis said, she does think grouping the sites together online has played an important role.

"Sometimes there is a perception that St. Petersburg or Pinellas County, because of its dense development, is built out," she said. "We are trying to highlight there are development opportunities."

Information from Times files was used in this report. Katherine Snow Smith can be reached at (727) 893-8785 or