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Ex-owner of St. Pete's Urban Style Flats sentenced on asbestos charge, ordered to fund treatment for exposed workers

Urban Style Flats, a 480-unit apartment complex at at 300 10th St. S near St. Petersburg's Tropicana Field, originally was built for elderly and disabled residents of the city. [DIRK SHADD   |   Times file, 2015]
Urban Style Flats, a 480-unit apartment complex at at 300 10th St. S near St. Petersburg's Tropicana Field, originally was built for elderly and disabled residents of the city. [DIRK SHADD | Times file, 2015]
Published Aug. 28, 2018

ST. PETERSBURG — After developer Philip J. Farley III bought a huge, rundown apartment complex near downtown St. Petersburg in 2010, he hired cheap day labor to start a renovation that included tearing out old "popcorn'' ceilings.

Unbeknownst to them, the popcorn was full of asbestos, a deadly cancer-causing substance.

Now, three years after he was indicted on several federal charges, Farley, 53, has been convicted of a single misdemeanor count of negligently causing the release of asbestos and placing others in "imminent danger of death or serious bodily injury."

Under a recent plea deal, Farley was sentenced to 48 months probation. He also must pay $250,000 to set up a medical monitoring and treatment program to be administered by the University of South Florida's College of Public Health. It will monitor the health of the approximately 90 individuals who may have been exposed to asbestos while working at what is now called Urban Style Flats near Tropicana Field.

In renovating the 480-unit complex, Farley's "primary concern was with his bottom line, which is entirely reasonable for a businessperson, but he is then responsible for the consequences of those decisions," federal prosecutors said.

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Urban Style Flats, originally known as the Graham Park and Rogall Congregate, was built in the 1970s for elderly and disabled residents. In 2010, as part of an effort to "avoid the concentration of poverty," St. Petersburg's Housing Authority decided to sell the three-building complex and use the proceeds for affordable housing in more scattered locations.

Farley bought the property "as-is" for $6.8 million and immediately began renovations. He did not obtain an asbestos survey of the work areas even though the authority's sales contract said the buildings contained the substance, so potentially dangerous that no minimum safe levels of exposure have been set.

While scraping the popcorn texture from ceilings, workers "generated large amounts of dusts and debris," Farley's plea agreement said. Some of it blew threw open windows into the neighborhood while the rest was swept into wheelbarrows, trash cans and trash bags, then deposited into open-top dumpsters.

"None of the workers were trained in the proper removal of asbestos-containing materials," the agreement said. "None of the workers were provided with or wore more protection than a basic paper or fiber dusk mask."

Pinellas County officials later said that about 120,000 square feet of asbestos had been illegally removed before they received a complaint and checked it out. Farley was ordered to properly remove the remaining asbestos, which took about six months. Under a settlement agreement with the county, he paid $175,000 in fines.

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In 2015, Farley and a supervisor, Aurelijius Baltusis, were indicted on seven felony counts, each carrying a maximum penalty of five years in federal prison. Baltusis pleaded guilty last year and was sentenced to 36 months probation and fined $4,000.

Since Farley bought it, Urban Style Flats has become a popular complex because of its location near the city's trendy Edge District. In December, a New York joint venture paid $46.25 million for the apartments and embarked on a multi-million dollar renovation.

Farley could not be reached for comment. It's not clear from public records if he still had an ownership stake in the complex when it was sold.

Contact Susan Taylor Martin at smartin@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8642. Follow @susanskate