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Amid St. Petersburg's building boom, the old downtown YMCA resists any progress

Developer Nick Ekonomou says he had to seek out a new contractor for the downtown St. Petersburg project.
Published Nov. 12, 2016

ST. PETERSBURG — As new, modern structures have risen into the city skyline around it, the historic YMCA building remains empty and derelict, stubbornly resisting any attempts to join St. Petersburg's reborn downtown.

Its newest owner, South Florida developer Nick Ekonomou, said he still plans to transform the site at 116 Fifth St. S into a boutique hotel and event venue.

Work began early this year, but after an initial burst of activity it has come to a standstill. The barrel tile roof, being rebuilt mostly with original tiles, hasn't been touched since March.

"The contractor I had lost his license and walked out on us and so I'm dealing with that issue," said Ekonomou, who owns other properties, including two apartment buildings, in St. Petersburg. "I've got another contractor stepping up soon."

That means the dilapidated building remains in the same dismal shape it was in when it sold back in 2000. Yet the area around it is rapidly transforming.

To the YMCA's south, NRP Group is building an eight-story, 348-unit complex between Fourth and Fifth streets and Second and Third avenues S. To the north, the demolition of the old Pheil Hotel at 424 Central Ave. is nearly complete. In its place, Red Apple Group plans to build a mixed-use tower.

Meanwhile at the YMCA, windows are either missing or boarded up, and weeds have sprouted around the 1926 Mediterranean revival-style building. Graffiti decorates the walls.

In the past decade, there's been talk about converting it into condominiums, a private residence with offices and, most recently, a music museum and performance venue.

Ekonomou said his plan that he outlined in January to restore the structure and construct an adjacent building remain. But it's undoubtedly behind schedule. He originally said he would submit site plans to the city in June. Now he said it could take another two to three months.

When 2016 started, Ekonomou spoke enthusiastically about converting the old Y into a boutique hotel with luxury studio apartments. Three penthouse suites would be on the top floor. He also spoke of plans for a multistory building on a patch of land — 3,000 square feet — wedged behind the former Times Publishing building and the former Y that would feature a roof-top bar, lap pool and parking. Walkways would connect the new nine-story tower to the old building.

But on Friday, Ekonomou said his plans are still evolving and the cost of his project is now expected to run about $16 million to $18 million. The lap pool has been dropped, since there's already a pool in the old Y's basement. Instead, the roof will feature an area for sunning. The new hotel also could now offer between 86 and 130 rooms, and the tower could rise as high as 15 stories.

"It all depends on the design and costs," Ekonomou said. "All the hotel operators I'm talking with are telling me we need to maximize our room count and try to reach 120 rooms."

Will Michaels, former president of St. Petersburg Preservation, said he's pleased with those plans.

"In terms of the aspirations, those are great, and what we want is for our historic buildings to be used and for them to have a vital place in the city," said Michaels, who sits on the city's Community Planning and Preservation Commission. "That's certainly one of the gems in the city. So I hope it will flourish. It's been a long journey."

Ekonomou, a former Florida State University football player who played briefly for the Miami Dolphins, bought the historic 60,000-square-foot YMCA for $1.4 million. The purchase became official a year ago after a long legal battle with another prospective buyer.

He said he's about to sign a contract with Roy Newsome of Sound Construction Group to start work and "feels blessed" to be getting such a commitment.

"There's so much building going on in downtown St. Pete, it's hard to secure an experienced general contractor," he said. The new project will be called the Edward.

But while progress remains nonexistent, Michaels said Ekonomou's timing for the project might be just right.

"Downtown is booming and we've got just record-breaking growth going on, and certainly the outlook is for that to continue, at least for the near future," Michaels said. "In terms of the boutique hotel and the entertainment center there, certainly the market is right. And I think we've prided ourselves in the historic character of our city."

Contact Waveney Ann Moore at wmoore@tampabay.com or (727) 892-2283. Follow @wmooretimes.

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