Billionaire developer says 'St. Pete needs a skyline' in revealing soaring tower to replace 'cheese grater' building

ST. PETERSBURG — New York's Red Apple Group is returning to the Florida market in a big way — its plans for a prime block in downtown St. Petersburg include what could be one of the tallest buildings on Florida's west coast.

"St. Pete needs a skyline,'' John Catsimatidis, the company's billionaire owner, said in a phone interview Thursday.

Red Apple, which is under contract to buy the block of 400 Central Avenue, released a rendering of a sleek tower that Catsimatidis said would be about the height of ONE St. Petersburg, the 41-story building under construction a few blocks farther east on Central.

Although his project is still in the preliminary stages, Catsimatidis said it will be a mixed-used development that could include residences as well as the hotel and office space that Mayor Rick Kriseman is pushing for.

"We looked at the ONE competition, which is going to be finished just about when we start, and I think it's 60 or 70 percent sold-out already,'' Catsimatidis said. "If it's 60 or 70 percent sold, I guess there is a need" for more residential projects downtown.

Catsimatidis said St. Petersburg is a "second home,'' given that his wife's brother, sister and 97-year-old father live in the city. Red Apple, though, has not been very active in Florida since it sold its Pantry Pride supermarket chain and other holdings in the state several years ago.

"We've been developing in New York a long time, but we are looking to come back to Florida and this opportunity came along,'' Catsimatidis said of the 400 Central block. "I made a decision to write a check.''

Catsimatidis added that he likes the atmosphere for development locally.

"They welcome people who are going to put their money up and invest,'' he said. "In New York, sometimes all you get are kicks. My back hurts from kicks.''

Catsimatidis would not say what he is paying for the 2.3-acre tract, arguably the most valuable property available for redevelopment in booming downtown St. Petersburg. Red Apple won out over more than a dozen other companies that submitted offers to buy the block, now home to a crumbling parking garage and a historic, but long vacant, hotel known as the "cheese grater'' because of the aluminium gridwork covering its original facade.

The Greek-born Catsimatidis, ranked 182nd on Forbes' list of the 400 richest Americans, said he flew into town Tuesday and had dinner at Sundial's Sea Salt restaurant. Among those joining him were U.S. Rep. Gus Bilirakis, R-Palm Harbor, and architect Bill Harvard, who did the rendering of the proposed tower.

On Wednesday, Catsimatidis met with Kriseman over lunch at the St. Petersburg Yacht Club.

"We're asking the city of St. Pete for their recommendations, and they said they need a hotel and office space, and they also need some convention space, so we're going to talk about that,'' Catsimatidis said. "We're open to suggestions.''

Though Kriseman indicated last week that he thought downtown had enough apartments and condos, Catsimatidis didn't rule those out. He said Red Apple would conduct a study of the market over the next six months to determine what the Central Avenue project should include.

"If there is a need for more hotel space, we may do it. If not, we're not going to do it,'' he said. "I think you want to create a balance with what the city needs.''

Red Apple is a diversified company with holdings that include convenience stores, an aviation business, an oil refinery and Gristedes supermarkets, Manhattan's largest grocery store chain. Catsimatidis said Red Apple's St. Petersburg project doesn't yet have a name — "maybe we'll have a contest" — and that it would be next year before any work began.

In the meantime, he said, he might "seriously look'' for a residence of his own in the area. For now, his preferred place to stay is the Tradewinds at St. Pete Beach.

"I love the beach,'' he said.

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