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St. Petersburg real estate investor feels frustrated by hurdles

ST. PETERSBURG — Nick Ekonomou says he can't catch a break. The Miami developer who is eager to invest millions of dollars in St. Petersburg and make it his new home faces roadblocks at every turn.

His purchase of the historic, downtown YMCA for $1.4 million one year ago has been tied up in court ever since by an earlier suitor of the building.

A plan to buy an Allendale home at 901 40th Ave. N and change the orientation of the large parcel in case he wanted to build additional homes met great opposition from neighbors. He delayed the purchase but is still eyeing it.

Now, the same neighbors have requested the city designate another Allendale home Ekonomou bought for his residence as a historic local landmark against his wishes. He paid $888,000 for the 6,500-square-foot home in May.

"I'm getting beat up and knocked around here. I am investing in the community, and I really want to make it better," said Ekonomou, who is planning to restore the YMCA built in 1927 and make it an event space with hotel rooms and a private club with a restaurant. "I've got people with no financial interest telling me what to do. It's just mind-boggling."

A public hearing on the historic designation application on his home at 3900 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. St. is scheduled for Monday's City Council meeting.

City code allows for an individual or a group to request a property be designated as historic even if the owner opposes it. The process, called a third-party application, isn't very common, according Derek Kilborn, manager of the city's Urban Planning and Historic Preservation Division. He cited just 15 such cases since 1986.

Ekonomou is restoring his 1930 house built by developer Cade Allen with historical integrity, he said, and has no plans to tear it down. But he objects to a historical designation he hasn't asked for to dictate requirements of what can be done to his home.

The historic designation calls for approval of changes made to exterior components, such as the roof, windows and patio, but not paint color, Kilborn said.

"I'm all about preservation. I'm preserving the Y. But I still think third-party people shouldn't have the right to just go and cost you thousands of dollars," Ekonomou said. "I had to hire an attorney. I had to get opinions."

Former Mayor Bill Foster is the attorney representing the neighbors making up the Allendale Crime Watch Association, which filed the third-party application for historic designation.

"It's certainly one of the more historic structures in St. Petersburg. If all it takes is owner opposition (to stop a historic designation), then we might as well throw out the code," Foster said.

Construction of the home, one of the first in Allendale and grandest in the city, was chronicled in what was then the St. Petersburg Times. It was built with stone that wasn't common in the area.

"We firmly believe this owner is an honorable man, and he's in love with this house, but the next owner may not be so honorable. So, 'I promise not to tear it down' isn't enough protection," Foster said.

"We are working hard on Allendale to preserve it to not have cookie-cutter homes in here or have beautiful homes torn down," resident Debbie Cole said.

Ekonomou, who has redeveloped several multifamily and single-family homes in South Florida, had a contract to buy the YMCA in 2008 but decided against it when the economy soured. He came back in June 2014 as a backup buyer if a contract between the owners and music promoter Thomas Nestor fell through.

Nestor had been soliciting donations, seeking investors and making installment payments since October 2012 with hopes of making the Mediterranean Revival-style building a music museum and performance venue.

He partnered with Tampa investors and made an 11th-hour payment that was short the full amount in July 2014. The dispute of who had the right to buy the 50,000-square-foot building went before a circuit judge who ruled in Ekonomou's favor.

The last-minute investors were unrelated and against the stipulations of the contract, the court ruled.

Nestor appealed. After recently losing the appeal, he filed for a rehearing and a written decision. Now, he and Ekonomou are awaiting the court's next move.

"Those remedies are kind of a long shot, but he's certainly entitled to make such a request," said Luke Lirot, Nestor's attorney.

Any time you ask the appellate court for a rehearing, it's a statistical long shot, but he added he feels Nestor's arguments are strong. Because the sellers had accepted payments from other investors along the way, the Tampa investors met the contract's requirements, Lirot said.

Meanwhile the YMCA sits empty with a blue tarp over its long leaking roof and no construction under way.

Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Katherine Snow Smith can be contacted at kssmith@tampabay.com. Follow @snowsmith.

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