|The city persuaded investor Thomas Gaffney to lease space at the 600 block of Central Avenue in downtown St. Petersburg to artists at reduced rates.|
In the 1920s, St. Petersburg’s downtown core featured 10 mall-like arcades where shoppers could get out of the sun and rain and browse storefronts beneath skylights and ornate chandeliers. Only a few of the arcades are left. Two years ago, the historic Crislip Arcade on Central Avenue was slated for demolition, to be replaced by a 15-story mixed-use development. When the housing bust killed the project, the arcade was left standing, but with no tenants. Deteriorating, it became a gathering place for homeless people.
In 2008, Thomas Gaffney, a local investor, purchased the arcade and much of the rest of the block for $2.3 million. "I’m a long-term investor," Gaffney says. "I buy land and hold it for years and years and years, and hopefully someday I sell it and make some money on it."
When city officials learned of Gaffney’s intention to demolish or board up his part of the block, they urged him to do something, anything, to improve the property. City Council Chair Leslie Curran hoped he would allow artists to fix up and work in the abandoned storefronts, at least until the real estate market improved.
Second-guessing himself at times, Gaffney went along with the idea but decided to pay for the renovations himself. "I did it because the city, I felt, needed a boost, and I have the money to do it," he says.
Now he has 26 storefronts leased —?eight within the arcade and 18 along Central — to artists or art-related businesses for up to five years at $8 a square foot, less than half of comparable rates along Central. Given what he has spent on the renovations — a figure he won’t reveal because he doesn’t want people to think he’s "completely crazy" — Gaffney says he has no expectations of making a profit for now.
"It’s not that big of a deal to me if I sell the land or not," he says. "If the arts district doesn’t work, if the people are struggling in five years, then I sell it. But if it works for them, I’m happy to keep doing it."