As a kid growing up in Clearwater, Dustin DeNunzio saw downtown as a place to pass through on the drive to the beach.
After he launched his real estate firm in 2005, he saw it like most developers have over the years — “kind of a ghost town,” where no investor wanted to make the first move. He took his business instead to St. Petersburg, Clearwater Beach and the Boston area.
But after Clearwater broke ground last year on the $84 million renovation of Coachman Park and the waterfront, DeNunzio, 45, began viewing the future of downtown much differently.
He recruited friend Matthew Picket, a vice president of New York-based Gotham Organization, to form the development team behind the $400 million apartment, retail and hotel plan for two bluff parcels bordering Coachman Park that the City Council selected in July.
On Thursday, the council passed a milestone by giving final approval to the development and purchase agreements that lay out terms of the deal, including $25.5 million in incentives. On Nov. 8, residents will vote on whether the city should sell the two bluff properties to The DeNunzio Group and Gotham Property Acquisitions for $24.7 million to make the development possible.
Katie Cole, an attorney representing DeNunzio and Gotham, called it the largest project that the city, “and candidly most of Pinellas County,” has ever seen. DeNunzio said it has been personal, too.
“As a developer, to do something of this scale that is in my backyard with my family and my nieces and nephew going to school around here, it’s huge for me,” DeNunzio said in an interview. “There’s a lot of pride that goes along with this.”
DeNunzio and Picket met in 2016 when Picket was working at Norges Bank Real Estate Management in New York with DeNunzio’s brother.
Picket, 31, is the fifth generation of the family that has led Gotham Organization, which has developed 35,000 apartment units, office buildings, hospitals, schools and retail centers.
Two years ago, as the political climate was shifting in New York, Picket said, the firm directed him to look for other cities to expand. He started exploring South Florida, but the pandemic halted his leads.
In February, DeNunzio said, he invited his friend to check out some real estate in St. Petersburg and Clearwater Beach. As they drove over the Memorial Causeway, Picket had a view of the construction underway in Coachman Park and the pristine bluff parcels surrounding it.
As an outsider, he said he was shocked at the disinvestment in downtown Clearwater considering the thriving nearby cities.
At the time, Clearwater was preparing to put the bluff parcels out to bid, and DeNunzio and Picket pivoted their focus there. Picket said the city allowing for increased density on the sites made the project less of a risk.
“Gotham historically has been pioneering in a lot of different neighborhoods all around New York City, but the key to getting a neighborhood off the ground is to have a critical mass and real scale,” Picket said.
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One of the city’s stated goals in selling its bluff parcels is that the development could attract visitors and businesses to the empty blocks and storefronts around downtown.
The complication is that, since 2017, limited liability companies tied to the Church of Scientology have bought at least 100 properties around the waterfront and about 60 in the residential area to the north. Most have been left vacant, and the owners’ plans are unclear.
DeNunzio and Gotham’s proposal calls for a 158-room hotel on the former Harborview site at the corner of Osceola Avenue and Cleveland Street and 500 to 600 apartment units between two towers on the former City Hall site a half block south. Both parcels will have restaurant and retail space, while the Harborview site will also include a conference center, event space and rooftop bar and restaurant.
DeNunzio and Picket, who are not members of Scientology, said the goal is for the bluff to spark other activity throughout downtown. But given the unknowns of the surrounding property, they said the bluff and park together will have enough offerings to serve as a regional destination on its own.
“From our perspective, this can function as its own ecosystem, but it’s not the goal,” Picket said. “The idea is if you’re going to be a first mover in a market making such a significant investment, you hope to do a lot more and to draft off of that.”