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The future's past

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  • | 10:00 a.m. February 27, 2015
  • Tampa Bay-Lakeland
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Executive Summary
Company. Sight Real Estate Industry. Commercial real estate Key. Redeveloping the urban core through adaptive reuse.

Location, size and cost are important to Michael Mincberg of Tampa-based Sight Real Estate when he's looking for a piece of real estate to develop. But nothing trumps the need for a good story.

So when Mincberg bought the old Graham Bottling Works building in Tampa Heights last month for $375,000, he was shocked to learn there wasn't too much history surrounding the 90-year-old structure. Before he turned the former orange juice factory into nearly two-dozen loft units, he knew he would need a story to help it sell.

That's where “The Bootlegger” was born. It's a concept he came up with for the project after imagining a history for the building as a bottling company in the middle of a residential neighborhood during Prohibition.

Mincberg is part of the generational push from the suburbs back to the urban core. Younger people are looking to be at the center of the action, not far away from it. And more often than not, it's coming at the expense of old factory buildings like Graham Bottling. Yet, Mincberg has focused his efforts not on razing old buildings to replace them with newer ones, but reusing them to preserve their character and history.

“I'm really a preservationist, someone who believes in old stuff and the value in it,” Mincberg says. “We are in an urban renaissance right now, and to be able to take an old building that was built in the 1920s and make it something useful again in the 2010s, that's exciting.”

Discovering Buried Treasure
It might be polite to say Mincberg's first six months as a real estate agent were tough.

The then 19-year-old journeyed from listing to listing, schmoozed hundreds of potential homebuyers, slaved over every open house. But for all his efforts, Mincberg ended with the same result: nothing.

For many, that would spell an immediate end to that line of work. Then again, Mincberg isn't like many people.

“I knew what I wanted, and I always had an entrepreneurial mindset,” Mincberg says. “I looked at that job as an internship, maybe sell two or three houses and learn something about real estate.”

He began to make sales, but at the same time, Mincberg knew his future was veering in a different direction. Especially when he started to become friends and acquaintances with professional athletes looking for smart ways to invest their newfound wealth.

For those athletes who did look to invest, the stock market seemed like a great place to start. Mincberg, however, pushed them to do something different, to look at something with a longer lifespan.

“With their age, they can put long-term debt on something, and pay it down over 20 to 30 years,” he said. “That might seem like a long time for them at first, but it's really setting them up for the future. It ensures they have cash flow for years to come, long after their playing careers are over.”

As a developer focused on the urban core, Mincberg knew many of the old buildings standing in the way of development were part of each neighborhood's fiber, its history. And he was committed to adapting their use to bring old buildings back to life.

He found inspiration in projects like the Box Factory Lifts in Ybor City, and would be bolstered by later high-profile projects such as Le Meridien in Tampa, where a dated federal courthouse was turned into a luxury hotel.

Three years ago, Mincberg discovered a 1920s-era apartment building in Tampa's Westshore Palms neighborhood. City officials suggested he tear down the building, but Mincberg had other plans.

Recruiting former Tampa Bay Buccaneers star Simeon Rice as an investor, Mincberg completely transformed the dilapidated structure into Il Nascondiglio, the Italian word for “the hideout.”

“I found some older residents living in that neighborhood their entire lives, and the rumors had been that back in the 1930s, Al Capone's men would hide out in this place,” Mincberg says.

Not only did that help him develop a name, but the legend provided publicity for the 12-unit apartment building it might not have received otherwise.

Love at first sight
The concept of adaptive reuse is far older than many of the buidings Mincberg targets. Communities and developers have long looked for ways to make something old new again. In Europe, abandoned churches were popular among redevelopers looking for large amounts of space under a single roof.

The industrial age created similar opportunities for American urban pioneers, giving them a large canvas on which to create new uses.

James Landers had just that chance when he found a 50,000-square-foot bread factory in Tampa's Hyde Park. He knew immediately it would be something really special.

“It was love at first sight,” says Landers, now a director of Ironwood VG LLC in Tampa. But back then, he was a founder of HighPoint Development, a company that would later create Seybold Lofts, bringing history and modern condominiums together.

“Not only was it in a very desirable part of South Tampa, but we had this unique structure we knew we could really turn into something incredible,” Landers said.

But finding a suitable structure is just a small part of the process. Making it work financially is even more important, Mincberg says.

“You really have to have a seller who really understands the value of that building, which is usually a lot lower than they might initially think,” he says. “You really can't buy for more than $30 per square foot. Too much beyond that, and it's cheaper to build a new shell from scratch.”

That has been one of the obstacles holding back the old cigar factories around Ybor City. Many of them were purchased during the real estate boom of a decade ago, and the sales price is just too high.

But if a reasonable price can be found, urban redevelopers like Mincberg can look for less-traditional ways of raising capital, from investment-hungry professional athletes like Simeon
Rice, to historical redevelopment grants many local governments and civic groups offer.

Finding New Money
However, those grants and tax credits typically force developers to do something they don't really like: to work out in the open. It also forces them to reuse aspects of buildings that might have just ended up in a scrap pile otherwise, such as old rotting ceiling beams, for example.

“It's like a puzzle, and I think that's why a lot of people shy away from it,” Mincberg says.

Money is money, however, and if developers have to jump through a few extra hoops to reduce the cost of a project, it's worth doing, says David Kitchens, a principal at Cooper Carry architectural firm in Washington, D.C.

“There is just an incredible cost savings involved,” says Kitchens, whose company leads projects along the Atlantic seaboard, including the Tampa Bay area. “Where you might find some problems is when it comes to putting historic and affordable housing credits together. You might get the historic side that says you can't change something, but the affordable housing side might say you have to, because every bedroom has to have a window, for example.”

Mincberg already is working through potential challenges that might come with the redevelopment of the Graham Bottling Works. His goal will be to find rents that could generate up to a 30% return as quickly as possible.

But taking on a project like this could have lasting effects — not just for his bottom line, but for the neighborhood as well.

“I think in 10 years, Tampa Heights is going to be the best neighborhood for people to want to move to,” Mincberg says. “It's projects like The Bootlegger that will help lead the way.”

The J.H. Graham Bottling Works on Tampa's Jefferson Street in its prime about 100 years ago. Photo courtesy of the Tampa-Hillsborough
County Public Library System

Finding History
There may not be a lot of written history about the old Graham Bottling Works factory in Tampa Heights, but redeveloper Michael Mincberg has discovered a lot of physical artifacts in an unlikely place: eBay.

The e-commerce site offers a number of remnants from the factory's glory days — the bottles themselves.

One bottle, for example, was selling just last week on eBay for a starting price of $10. But even the seller didn't have much to say about it, except that it was “a little dirty inside.”

Mincberg is acquiring some old bottles on his own, and wants to make it a part of the new apartment complex's lobby.

“You never want to forget where you're from, or where your home came from,” he says.


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