CLEARWATER — For more than a decade, the shell of a gutted 15-story high rise has stood abandoned at the entrance to downtown, an eyesore that has come to embody the unmet potential of the Cleveland Street district to its west.
But after years of failed development deals, a federal lawsuit and growing hopelessness, the infamous Strand building at 1100 Cleveland St. is being reborn.
Chicago-based GSP Development secured a building permit March 29 to begin its $25 million development of 134 high-end townhomes and apartments, anchored by about 6,000 square feet of ground floor retail. The crane and construction crews took 15 months to show up after the company bought the building in December 2016, leaving many wondering for more than a year if it was just another false start.
But GSP Development managing principal Larry Debb said now his project, likely to be renamed Apex 1100, is a go.
"Now we're excited because we're bringing to market a building that hasn't been seen in that marketplace before," Debb said. "The amenities, the views from top floors, the quality of units. We're just very, very excited."
Still, the clock is ticking for Debb to bring his project to fruition.
About a week after GSP Development bought the Strand Dec. 19, 2016, the Municipal Code Enforcement Board voted to drop $226,000 in liens that had accumulated under the previous owner, Espacio USA. There was a catch: GSP had to complete its project within 30 months or else pay up on the fines it should have inherited.
Debb said he's confident the project will be completed on time, especially after the code board recently granted a three-month extension into September 2019 after he encountered some delays in getting the structure up to code.
A developer bought the 1970s-era tower in 2004 with plans to convert it from a mostly vacant office building into 88 high-end condos with a concierge, pool and spa. By 2009, Espacio USA, an arm of the wealthy Spanish real estate firm Immobiliaria Espacio, had control of the building and halted work amid the tanked economy.
The gutted skeleton became a hot spot for vandals and the homeless, and the city began fining the company $250 a day in 2013 for code violations.
Espacio filed a federal lawsuit in 2015 against the city in response to it issuing a demolition order and declaring it an unsafe structure. The company dropped its lawsuit after the Code Enforcement Board agreed to waive the liens.
Although Espacio's deputy chairman, Juan Villar-Mir De Fuentes, has a net worth of $3.3 billion and in 2011 was given the title of "marquis" by the king of Spain, the company had paid only $120,000 in fines, with $226,000 outstanding.
The board approved a similar lien forgiveness deal in February 2016 for another prospective buyer, Davenport's Investors Realty, but that firm's plan for a 155-unit apartment and townhome complex stalled when it couldn't raise capital and the sale fell through.
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GSP's project proposes a restaurant with a coffee shop, parking, a dog wash and bike storage on the ground floor. Architectural plans also show a fitness center, golf simulator, a party room and pool deck for residents.
Debb said the units will be priced at $2 a square foot for lease, putting it in the high end market.
"I'm a Chicago developer, so what we're seeing in Chicago is the young kids, when they have a party, the apartments are relatively small so we're actually going to have a separate room with a stove in it," Debb said of the Clearwater project. "They'll have a private area for parties."
The stakes are high for the Strand's success. The city has long been working to recruit more residential projects to the downtown core in hopes they will attract restaurants, retail and other businesses to fill empty storefronts in the sluggish district.
Downtown landed the Water's Edge and Station Square condo towers before the economy tanked in 2008, but the city still lacks a residential heart to bring foot traffic downtown, and in turn, businesses.
Construction on the 257-unit Nolen apartment complex across the street from the Strand on Cleveland Street wrapped up last fall. But Peter Collins, managing principal for developer Forge Capital Partners, said he's been unable to recruit businesses to fill the 10,000 square-feet of retail space, because of a lack of parking.
The city is now revisiting negotiations with the Church of Scientology, which owns a vacant lot adjacent to the Nolen, to use for parking.
Community Redevelopment Agency Director Amanda Thompson said the city is considering putting two city-owned downtown properties out to public bid this summer to recruit a developer for workforce and market rate housing. She said the goal would be to add attractive residential options at the lots at 1274 Cleveland St. and 200 S Martin Luther King Jr. Ave.
"Housing is critical," Thompson said. "You can't support a variety of restaurant and retail if you don't have people patronizing them 24/7, 365 days a year... If we have more housing then you will see more people walking around, and then for businesses that come into the bottom of the Strand or the Nolen, they are going to have a population close by."
Debb acknowledged the odds are stacked. He's pushing to lure tenants to his building without a thriving downtown for them to walk to. In the chicken-or-the-egg scenario, he's asking residents to make the first move in hopes business will follow.
He's still optimistic, especially with the city's upcoming $55 million reshaping of the downtown waterfront aimed to spur activity.
"With what the city is doing along the shoreline, all the improvements they are anticipating, we want to be part of that upswing of a higher quality downtown," he said.
Contact Tracey McManus at email@example.com or (727) 445-4151. Follow @TroMcManus.