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Developer turning old St. Petersburg school into restaurant, shops

ST. PETERSBURG

World War I had just begun, Charlie Chaplin was charming moviegoers as The Little Tramp and a letter could be mailed for 2 cents when a new elementary school opened Sept. 21, 1914, in the northeast area of a fast-growing St. Petersburg.

Over the decades North Ward School would become a beloved part of the neighborhood, supported by teas and bake sales, until time began to dull its looks and render it obsolete. One June day in 2008, someone wiped clean the blackboards and turned out the lights for what many thought would be the last time.

Now, North Ward is coming back to life.

Real estate investor Jonathan Daou bought the property at 327 11th Ave. N from the Pinellas County school district two years ago for $1.7 million. He is spending hundreds of thousands of dollars more to refurbish the Mission-style building and again make it an important part of its neighborhood, albeit not in a way that School Board members a century ago ever could have envisioned.

A new addition facing Fourth Street will house a restaurant with an outdoor patio, perhaps a "California/Mexican-themed, fast-casual place," as Daou puts it. Former classrooms will become a boutique, a fitness studio, a facility to train yoga instructors and a shop selling "organic" children's clothing and products.

"I'm trying to curate an excellent mix of uses," Daou said on a recent tour. "I was the only one that wanted to preserve this."

Although plans have yet to be submitted to the city, workers are painting walls, tearing out the old drop ceilings, redoing the heart pine floors. Daou says 70 percent of the space already is leased.

It is an audacious project that will be closely watched, not only because it shows how historic buildings can be reused but also because Daou is the one attempting it after another innovative venture didn't go as planned.

Two years ago, soon after moving from New York to St. Petersburg, he paid $825,000 for the derelict Monticello motel several blocks north on Fourth Street. Last fall, he stood in the courtyard and announced plans to convert it into a trendy New York- or London-style "food hall."

Chefs and food vendors could operate out of the 18 rooms, selling fresh items or preparing dishes for take-out or dine-in. Customers could sit in the courtyard and enjoy a meal. The idea captivated foodies, generated a ton of publicity and honed Daou's reputation as the "creative real estate investor" he calls himself.

But Daou soon ran up against city codes that required more parking spaces than the motel property had space for. City staffers say they held numerous meetings with him trying to work out a solution; he told the Tampa Bay Times in March that the city had an "inability to think outside the box." He scrapped the food hall idea and put the vacant, fenced-in motel back on the market for $1.2 million.

These days, with a new project in the works, Daou has toned down his comments about city officials.

"Everyone I've worked with in the city has been beyond nice," he says. "If I get away with parking, every Tom, Dick and Harry will try to get away with it."

Daou initially ran into parking issues with the North Ward property, too, forcing him to abandon plans to use an L-shaped wing added in 1948 and expanded in 1960. He has a permit to knock that down.

The original two-story building, last used as a school for disruptive students, was ultimately deemed by school officials to be too old and outdated to keep. It is undergoing some exterior modifications including removal of large commercial air-conditioning units. The yellow brick has been painted white with charcoal-colored trim on lintels and window sills.

Inside, where there are 12 classrooms, an imposing central staircase and a large area once used as a library, "we're pretty much keeping all the space intact," Daou says. "The classrooms will be rented out as they were historically — you get to rent a classroom." Even the chalkboard and storage cubbies have been left untouched.

All of the new construction in St. Petersburg has city staff so backed up that Daou is hiring a private, city-approved firm to review his plans and expedite the approval process. If all goes well, tenants could move in by fall.

The 42-year-old Daou does not consider himself a preservationist, but has a good rapport with those who are.

"Generally, we're always excited to see historic buildings reused, and he's going to do that in this case and that's a good thing," says Peter Belmont, vice president of St. Petersburg Preservation. "Jonathan has lots of idea and visions on how you can use old buildings, which is something that many in St. Petersburg do not seem to have."

The organization recently went to court to try to save the historic Pheil Hotel and bank on Central Avenue, which the current owners want to demolish so they can sell the entire 400 block of Central for redevelopment.

Daou himself has bought several properties on or near Central. "It's the only street like it in Florida," he says, running as it does all the way from the waterfront through downtown and on past an ever-growing number of apartments, shops, galleries, restaurants and craft beer pubs.

The explosive development is creating an urban vibe that Daou finds especially appealing.

"To me, (St. Petersburg) is like Austin, Texas, or Asheville," he says. "It has a weirdness to it, an interesting political mix of liberal, conservative, progressives. It has all these elements. It feels like a big city but it's awesome."

Daou landed in St. Petersburg by way of Beirut, Lebanon, where he was born and went to university, and Manhattan, where he invested in buildings with space that could be rented by the day or week for events and startup businesses.

"It was sort of a creative way of generating income while incubating small businesses and seeing which could survive and become a long-term lease," he says. Tenants included Uber, restaurants and Ikea's then-new bedding division.

He has similar plans for some of his properties in St. Petersburg, which he first discovered because of relatives living here. He bought a home in the Old Northeast, not far from the school he's now renovating, but recently moved with his wife and two kids to Historic Kenwood.

It is neighborhoods like those that hugely enhance St. Petersburg's livability, Daou says, along with its easy-to-navigate grid system of streets. By contrast, he finds Tampa confusing to get around and thinks it suffers from a multitude of overpasses that break up neighborhoods.

"I never go to Tampa unless it's to the airport."

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

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