ST. PETERSBURG — In its past life almost a century ago, the historic Tomlinson building off downtown St. Petersburg’s Mirror Lake was known as St. Petersburg Junior High.
The building became a vocational high school in the 1930s and, until its closure in December due to low enrollment, an adult education center that taught thousands of Pinellas County’s grownups.
Now, school district officials hope the three-story building on 1.7 acres will be the district’s first project to provide affordable apartments to teachers and school staff. Pinellas County Schools this week issued a request for proposals to redevelop the building into a mixed-use, public-private partnership project and manage affordable housing apartments for educators as housing costs continue to rise.
“We kept hearing and especially seeing in St. Petersburg, hearing the (City) Council and hearing the mayor talk about the workforce housing and affordable housing,” said Clint Herbic, the district’s associate superintendent over operational services. “It kind of struck us that, here’s a great opportunity to use this building and this piece of land for that exact reason.”
Inspired by similar developments by Miami-Dade County Public Schools and throughout the country, the Pinellas school district plans on leasing the land to a developer for free in exchange for the chosen vendor transforming classrooms into apartments and managing those units. The district hopes to preserve the 98-year-old building, which is up to code with a new roof installed a few years ago. But it has no central air conditioning, relying on window units to cool individual rooms.
The district hopes the project will provide the maximum number of workforce housing units allowed for occupancy by district teachers and employees at the lowest possible rent. Officials believe rental units are the best way to help out more employees over the life of the housing complex.
The district worked with the Pinellas Education Foundation to commission a market study, which found that at least 75% of the apartments, or 150 units, should go to households earning 90% or less of the area median income. It recommends including amenities like a pool, barbeque area, clubhouse, fitness center, pet care, coffee bar and rooftop deck.
The request for proposals itself, however, doesn’t call for any of those specifics. That market study will help guide the district on choosing the best proposal. Applications are due Feb. 1 and a selection committee of experts and community members is expected to pick a winner by March 22.
It’s also not yet clear how prospective tenants would be chosen, how many units will be made available or how the rent will be set. That will be up to the winning bidder. The property’s management group will be required to submit an annual report to the district.
“It’s kind of a situation where we know we’re not the experts in that world,” Herbic said. “We educate kids, we don’t get in that world and I think letting the respondents tell us how they’re going to do it is going to be the way to go with this one.”
The district initially reimagined the Tomlinson building as perhaps a center for early childcare or professional development for south county teachers to spare them the drive to the district’s headquarters in Largo, but “this was the biggest need.”
“Giving people an affordable place to live is something you can do,” Herbic said. “You can’t provide that for every single employee obviously. But you can help ease the burden for as many people as you can.”