St. Petersburg has blended live/work/play elements into a cohesive urban experience that is drawing raves -- and investment.
When West Palm Beach-based Kolter Group LLC officially broke ground earlier this month on its One St. Petersburg hotel and condominium project, it capped a renaissance decades in the making for the Pinellas County city.
At 41 stories, One will be St. Petersburg's tallest building when completed next year. The project will contain 253 luxury condominiums —priced starting at $600,000 — a 174-room Hyatt hotel and 17,000 square feet of retail space, within walking distance from the city's famed Beach Drive retail strip.
Kolter officials say they were drawn to St. Petersburg's downtown by a mix of amenities and a lifestyle that has been carefully cultivated over years by city support and zoning, public and private investment and a desire to integrate living and working.
“If you look at the menu of things you want for a development site, there's not much missing in St. Petersburg,” says Bob Vail, president of Kolter's urban division. “And it's happening. We don't have to talk about what's coming in the future — it's there now.”
Of all the Gulf Coast cities that have aspired to create live/work/play environments in their cores, St. Petersburg has become a model, encouraging residential development and entertainment options alongside traditional offices and government uses.
The result has been a 24-hour city with some 2,500 new residential units built or unveiled in the past three years, vibrant restaurants and craft brew pubs, new and reinvigorated retail offerings like a Publix Super Markets-anchored center and the upscale Sundial complex — home to Locale Market, a Muvico theater, Ruth's Chris Steak House and merchants like Jackie Z Style Co. and Tommy Bahama — and flourishing cultural amenities from a pro soccer team to museums.
Like One, of the new projects planned or under construction, half are mixed-use hybrids that marry residences with retail or lodging or office space.
Mayor Rick Kriseman, in marking One's construction start, says St. Petersburg has become “a pinnacle for contemporary downtown living. We are creating an urban core that invites you to live, work and play all year round.”
That achievement hasn't been lost on other Gulf Coast developers. Tampa Bay Lightning owner Jeff Vinik, who together with Cascade Investment LLC has a $2 billion plan to transform the Channelside district in downtown Tampa, noted St. Petersburg's revival at a talk last year.
Speaking to a Suncoast Tiger Bay gathering at the St. Petersburg Yacht Club in December, Vinik described Tampa as “America's next great urban waterfront district.”
“We're standing in America's current great waterfront district,” Vinik told the group, referring to St. Petersburg.
Though city planning to preserve waterfront parkland set the stage for the city to thrive, much of the energy has been generated by new residential development downtown, in projects like the 18-story 330 3rd St. South residences; the four-story Beacon 430; and the 13-story Salvador. Those developments were fueled, in part, by land that had been more affordable than in downtowns such as Naples, Sarasota or Tampa.
And more apartments and condos, many containing retail or offices or other uses, are in the offing.
Most notably, David A. Mack Properties LLC and Greenfield Partners unveiled plans for a 35-story tower containing 306 residences downtown to commence by the end of the year.
Miami-based American Land Ventures says it will do a second apartment building downtown, as well, and Kucera Properties, owner of the 27-story Priatek Plaza, hopes to build as many as 300 apartments on a site adjacent to its 300,000-square-foot office tower.
“There's tremendous excitement because of all the residences,” says Kevin Yeager, a senior associate with commercial brokerage firm Colliers International Tampa Bay, who specializes in St. Petersburg. “It's not the same city as even five or six years ago.”
City officials say the seeds of St. Petersburg's renaissance were planted decades ago, when decisions were made to preserve the waterfront visible from Beach Drive as parkland, buy land for a University of South Florida campus and protect the city's street grid system. Officials also instituted a financial incentive program to attract cultural venues, allowed greater density to encourage new residences and encouraged mixed-use projects.
From there, private developers rehabilitated the former Vinoy hotel and opened up 400 Beach Drive, a residential tower, which spurred further development.
In 2012, entrepreneur Bill Edwards, who has invested in the Mahaffey theater and Al Lang Stadium downtown, began resurrecting the Sundial retail complex with a host of new tenants.
“There was a package of amenities that slowly were put in place, and zoning allowed mixed-use, which helped drive private and other ancillary development,” says Dave Goodwin, the city's planning and economic development director.
Meanwhile, St. Petersburg has also benefitted from re-urbanization nationwide, changing demographics and the emergence of a “creative class,” which has prompted businesses to follow younger workers to city centers.
At the end of 2015, St. Petersburg's downtown office vacancy rate stood at 7.3%, the lowest it has been in two decades and among the lowest along the Gulf Coast.
Many major office buildings downtown, including the Morgan Stanley Tower and the City Center building, are fully committed.
“More companies are understanding what's happening here and, as a result, they want to be here,” says Alan DeLisle, the city's development administrator. “It's added to the sense that St. Petersburg is a very unique and aesthetic place.”
If projects being planned now reach fruition, that aesthetic could be further enhanced in the years to come.
Most notably, city officials are pushing ahead plans to redevelop the city's derelict waterfront Pier. If current plans hold, construction could start next year on a mix of new attractions and amenities.
Design firm ASD and New York-based Rogers Partners, together with Ken Smith Landscape Architects, earlier this month unveiled renderings that envision a splash pad, boat docks, green space, an observation building and education center and fishing areas at the Pier.
At the same time, the city is promoting the development of “districts” to further economic development.
An “Innovation District,” anchored by a new 220,000-square-foot Johns Hopkins University research center, would cluster life sciences and medical-related uses.
To the west of downtown, near Tropicana Field, the “Edge District” and “Grand Central District” are emerging, benefitting from an increasingly crowded and expensive downtown core.
Even so, developers say downtown St. Petersburg has yet to peak.
“St. Petersburg is experiencing something of a triple-witching hour,” Kolter's Vail says. “For us, the timing was very good because there was a lack of similar inventory, local infrastructure was superb and we were able to secure an incredible site, an entire city block, that gave us a lot of flexibility to move forward.
“And on top of that, the city was very supportive of the type of project we wanted to do downtown.”
Here are a few of the residential developments recently completed or coming soon to downtown St. Petersburg.
St. Petersburg officials were expected to learn March 25 what private developers envision for a redeveloped Tropicana Field site, when master plan proposals are due for review.
City officials in January issued a “request for qualifications” to attract developers and ideas for the 85-acre site west of St. Petersburg's downtown.
The 85-acre swath, where the Tampa Bay Rays play home games, has been criticized for stunting redevelopment in the area, in large part because its massive surface parking lot creates a barrier between the stadium itself and downtown.
Since the end of last decade's recession, St. Petersburg's downtown has undergone a renaissance that has increased residents, entertainment venues and enhanced cultural sites.
But much of that investment has been clustered downtown, near the city's waterfront, and little has bled outward toward the Tropicana Field site.
A trio of new residential and retail projects have been proposed near the stadium, but none has yet to move forward.
City officials hope redeveloping the Tropicana Field site could lead to a new stadium for the Rays and a reinvigorated neighborhood.
“The vision for the property is to create a sustainable, world-class, mixed-use, high intensity, vibrant, connected and walkable district,” the city's request said.
Developers are also expected to include in their proposals ideas for “high quality public spaces and streetscapes” and public art to foster a “notable and enduring place” incorporating green technology.
City officials are expected to award a redevelopment contract sometime this summer.
“It is a unique opportunity that rarely exists in this country,” St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman said in January, adding the proposals could be “transformative” for the city by pushing the boundary of downtown farther west.
At the same time, Kriseman unveiled a deal with the team that calls for the Rays to contribute $24 million annually to the city, help fund master planning efforts and provide as much as $1 billion if the Rays exit St. Petersburg altogether.
“One of the most difficult things to do in regards to redevelopment in an urban area is land assembly,” says Jim Cloar, a downtown revitalization consultant with the Tampa chapter of the Urban Land Institute, a real estate and planning organization. “For the city to have that much land is really an opportunity.”
Cloar adds that the site could “capitalize and build on all the momentum that already exists on Central Avenue in the city” and promote both pedestrianization and a tying together of a now-fragmented street grid.
— K.L. McQuaid
Keep it different
It sounds like the back-story to a sitcom: High school buddies quit good-paying jobs to stay in their once-beleaguered hometown, and against all odds, help change city zoning laws and open a brew pub.
But that story is reality for St. Petersburg natives Nathan Stonecipher and Steve Duffy. In 2013, the duo, a banker and construction project manager, respectively, opened Green Bench Brewing Co., one of what's now several thriving brewpubs in and around downtown St. Petersburg.
The founders say St. Petersburg, from officials down to planning department staffers, embraced their concept and were allies in the startup process. “I think the city recognizes what small businesses have become to the area,” says Stonecipher. “They are doing everything in their power to keep them coming.”
Stonecipher says he and Duffy had multiple meetings with zoning department employees to go over the ramifications of changing the laws. Some zoning staffers even joined Stonecipher and Duffy on tours of other brew companies and tasting rooms, including Cigar City in Tampa. City officials ultimately granted the Green Bench duo a special zoning exception. “The city has been looking for ways to stay on this trend,” Stonecipher says.
The city embraced Stonecipher and Duffy so well that in a twist, local regulations were the least of their anxieties. The list of worries instead included finding the right space; creating floor plans; negotiating leases; finding equity partners; finding a head brewer; buying equipment; and building the inside of the facility. Stonecipher and Duffy invested nearly $1.5 million to open Green Bench.
Stonecipher says he's one of many like-minded people in St. Petersburg when it comes to the city's new vibe. Says Stonecipher: “We have a lot of entrepreneurs who aren't afraid of taking a risk and doing something differently.”
— Mark Gordon