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Two vacant lots in the 'heart' of St. Petersburg. Why does one look so much nicer?

With landscaping and a black metal fence, the 400 block of Central Avenue looks like a city park. Sellers of the property were required to make the improvements pending the start of construction. Meanwhile, a similar vacant lot just three blocks away has become an eyesore while it awaits development. [SUSAN TAYLOR MARTIN | Times]
Published May 23, 2018

ST. PETERSBURG — When several old buildings on the 400 block of Central Avenue were demolished two years ago, the owners were required to attractively fence and landscape the property.

The reason? To avoid having an unsightly vacant lot in the "heart of downtown,'' city planning director Dave Goodwin said at the time.

But for more than a decade, a big parcel a few blocks to the east and even more in the heart of downtown has remained an unsightly vacant lot. Is that a problem?

"Yes, that is why we changed the code,'' city zoning official Elizabeth Abernethey said this month.

RELATED: See that huge tower planned for downtown St. Pete? Never mind

Seems that the un-landscaped lot, once planned for a Grand Bohemian hotel and more recently a 35-story apartment tower, was cleared in 2005, three years before the new code took effect. So now it sits at First Avenue N and Second Street, an eyesore in an area that otherwise has blossomed with a striking new museum, a Hyatt Place hotel and a 41-story condominium.

The 50,000-square-foot parcel, which shares a block with Duke Energy's local headquarters, has a star-crossed history.

As part of a downtown redevelopment plan, the city sold the property in 2005 to Orlando-based Kessler Enterprise for $5 million — $3.5 million up front and the rest to be paid over time. Richard Kessler, who helped found the Days Inn chain before moving into the boutique hotel business, touted the Grand Bohemian as "the first true luxury hotel in Tampa-St. Petersburg.''

The Florida International Museum, which had been on the site, was torn down in 2005. Then the recession hit and plans for the hotel fizzled. Kessler sold the parcel in 2015 to developer David Mack and his equity partners for $8.75 million.

That year, Mack announced plans for a 35-story, 306-unit apartment tower on the site. He recently said he is moving ahead with the project, now called Halcyon.

"We've got construction bids in and we're trying to fine-tune our construction numbers and a couple of things to get squared away,'' including financing, he said.

For now, though, the Grand Bohemian/Halycon parcel remains a weedy lot enclosed by a metal construction fence covered with blue meshing that is torn and sagging.

"The current regulations did not apply to the First Avenue North site,'' Abernethy said of the property.

Meanwhile, the 400 block of Central — which was subject to the regulations — has been temporarily transformed into a lovely private park surrounded by expensive black-iron, estate-style fencing.

Under a 2008 change to its Land Development Regulations, the city won't issue a demolition permit in the downtown area unless the applicant has a city-approved site plan and meets "any pre-demolition conditions.''

As a condition of selling the 400 block of Central to billionaire John Catsimatidis' Red Apple Group in 2016, one of the owners, First States, had to clear the property of three buildings and a crumbling parking garage. To get the demolition permit, it also had to landscape the entire 2.5 acre site, which included laying 100,000 square feet of sod and planting shrubbery along the fence. The total cost was estimated at several hundred thousand dollars.

Catsimatidis, who famously said "St. Pete needs a skyline,'' plans a soaring mixed-use tower on the property. Many of those who live and work in the area, though, hope he takes his time so they continue to enjoy the tranquil oasis there now.

Says Anna Sprito, who works in a downtown bank: "It's really nice to walk by and look at and see some greenery.''

Staff writer Waveney Ann Moore contributed to this report. Contact Susan Taylor Martin at smartin@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8642. Follow @susanskate

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