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Troubled Mariners Pointe apartment complex gets new owner

Published Feb. 14, 2014

ST. PETERSBURG — Mariners Pointe Apartments, long the bane of its Pinellas Point neighbors, has been sold.

The new owner, DWSS St. Pete LLC, is planning millions of dollars in renovations to the rundown, crime-plagued property at 1175 Pinellas Point Drive S.

"We are completely rebranding Mariners Pointe," said Richard Willingham, one of the principals and owner of Atlanta Capital Advisors, an investment group based in Georgia.

"We are targeting a market profile that is much more affluent. As of yesterday, when we closed, this will no longer be a low-income property," he said Friday.

Renovations to the 368-unit complex will begin immediately and include new cabinetry, countertops, appliances, plumbing and lighting.

"It will be bringing it up to modern times," Willingham said.

It will become a gated community and get a new name.

Council member Steve Kornell welcomes the purchase and promised improvements to the troubled apartments in his district.

"I am very comfortable with what they are planning," he said. "I think that anytime you have somebody that makes a significant investment of several million dollars, that will be positive. Some of the things that happened under the previous management and owners were terrible for the neighborhood."

Jodi Davis, president of the Greater Pinellas Point Civic Association, who had gotten complaints about mold and other problems at Mariners Pointe, is looking forward to the changes.

"I am very optimistic and excited that the new owners have said that they are going to put money into the property," she said. "It's long overdue."

Owned most recently by Texas-based AHF-Bay Fund, the complex dates back to 1972 and has been known by several names. AHF-Bay Fund bought it for $15 million in 2005.

Efforts to create permanent change proved futile.

In 1982, a security guard was attacked and restrained with his own handcuffs. In 1997, Times printing plant employee Gerard Street was shot and killed in the parking lot. Security officer Mathew F. Little was killed while patrolling the complex in 2011. A few months later, another security officer and several residents came under gunfire as rival groups warred. No one was injured. Last year, Tieyannie Dewitte Hollis, 31, was shot to death.

Neighbors have complained for years. Brent Fisher, a past neighborhood president, called for the removal of the area's community police officer, accusing him of turning a blind eye on crime at the complex, then called Monterey Bay Apartments.

There have been other problems. In December, the St. Petersburg Housing Authority stopped giving its clients Section 8 vouchers to live at the complex because it failed to meet housing quality standards, spokeswoman Melinda Perry said.

"I don't think poor kids should have to live like that," Kornell said. "While I agree we need affordable housing, it not only has to be affordable, it has to be safe and clean."

Davis was contacted by residents.

"They were dealing with issues related to mold and unsanitary conditions, unsafe conditions," she said. "I wrote to the council and the mayor. I dealt with codes on the phone. It all boiled down to one of the residents finally moving out of Mariners Pointe because he was fortunate enough to do so. There were several families that that was not an option."

Davis said she is concerned about residents who cannot afford to move with the recent sale. "We don't want any citizens facing homelessness," she said.

"I think that people will be able to get affordable housing," Kornell said. "I feel very comfortable with that."

Willingham said current leases will be honored and that the new owners will work with the city to relocate residents, allowing them to break their leases without penalty.

The apartments are 56 percent occupied, he said. "We will probably have about 20 percent who qualify and want to stay. Normally, what happens is people express an intention of staying, however, their pocketbook may not be able to take that leap."

Weller Management, with offices at the Signature downtown and owners and managers of 1,500 apartment units in the Tampa Bay area, has been hired to oversee the complex.

"The first task is to get in and get our systems up and running and get ready for the renovations. We want to start improving the interior and exteriors immediately, so that the city and neighborhoods can get a feel for the positives we are bringing to the area," said George Quay, Weller managing partner. "We think it's a great part of the city and a great location."

Carolyn Phelps and her husband, Michael, owners of Integrity Property Services at 4154 Central Ave., will be the contractors.

"We are bringing this back to its original grandeur," Willingham said of the planned upgrades. "It's going to have more of a New Orleans feel to it, lots and lots of amenities, landscaping, two pools, huge green space, covered parking, screened porches. It will have storage. It will probably end up with 13 different floor plans."

John Burpee, president of NAI Tampa Bay and the listing and selling broker of the complex, said the property will have 1- , 2 – and 3-bedroom apartments and 3-bedroom townhouses.

Despite all the plans, the new investors don't plan to hold on to the property for long. "What we do is we buy and rebrand and over a several-year period we normally sell to a long-term, institutional investor," Willingham said.

"We feel that we can make a big, big difference, not only to the property, but to the community as well."

Times researchers Natalie Watson and Caryn Baird contributed to this article. Waveney Ann Moore can be reached at wmoore@tampabay.com or (727) 892-2283.

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