Updated 3 yearss ago
Across the street from where I work in downtown St. Petersburg is an empty 2-acre lot, nicely landscaped with grass, trees and shrubbery and surrounded by an attractive, decorative steel fence. There are gates, but they’re locked; it’s a look-but-don’t-tread-on-me space.
From around 1924 until two years ago, the site was occupied by a solid, 11-story salmon-colored brick-and-masonry building that began life as the Pheil Hotel, the Pheil Theater and the Central National Bank. Abram Pheil, St. Petersburg’s mayor from 1912-13, bought land at Central Avenue and Fourth Street and began developing it, but he died before the building was completed. His sons finished the job.
(Pheil’s other claim to fame: He was the first, and only, passenger on the first scheduled commercial airline flight, Tony Jannus’ 23-minute, 20-mile jaunt from St. Pete to Tampa across Tampa Bay in 1914. He paid $400 for the trip.)
The Pheil building did well, economically, into the 1950s. Late that decade, the part of the building that housed the theater was torn down and replaced with an office building. Around the same time, the hotel was renovated for use as office space. In subsequent renovations, someone with an eye toward “modernizing” the building put up aluminum grillwork over the building’s façade, giving the structure the appearance of a giant cheese grater, which is how locals began referring to it.
Downtown St. Pete, like many, declined in the 1970s. Banks came and went. Wachovia, the cheese grater’s last tenant, departed in 2006.
From then until 2016, the grater sat vacant — imprisoned by a long-term lease that kept it a dormant eyesore even as the downtown around it flourished after the recession. Pheil’s descendants, who still owned the land, were getting about $700,000 a year in land-lease income from a real estate investment trust that had acquired the cheese grater along with a batch of other buildings. The income gave the family little incentive to sell. For the trust, the condition and configuration of the building made it impossible to lease or renovate.
In 2016, the REIT and the Pheil heirs reached an agreement that allowed for the building to be demolished. Late that year, after a brief skirmish between the city and historic preservationists, backhoes chewed up a parking structure, and a wrecking ball slugged the Pheil building into oblivion. The demolition agreement stipulated that the site had to be landscaped until it’s developed — hence the fence and sod.
In the process, John Catsimatidis, a billionaire who founded Manhattan’s largest supermarket chain and owns a holding company called the Red Apple Group, bought the property for some $16 million. He’s familiar with the city because several members of his wife’s family live here.
Catsimatidis, who’s used to doing business in New York, wants to put up a 51-story tower. Renderings of the building — the favored design is by Miami’s Arquitectonica firm — portray a snazzy, glassy skyscraper that would be the tallest building on Florida’s west coast. Current plans call for a hotel with some 200 rooms, which the city could use, and more than 300 condos (starting at $1 million per unit), which will likely find buyers. Construction is estimated to cost $250 million.
Given the size of the investment and the history of the property, Catsimatidis is likely to get his way. But the project has prompted more than a little grumbling — several high-rise residential towers have sprouted downtown here in the past few years, but none in such contrast with the scale and style of their immediate surroundings as Catsimatidis’ endeavor on Central.
I think that the grumbling is healthy — part of the conversation that a healthy city should have about high-impact projects that shape its future. St. Petersburg, which has the most vibrant downtown in Florida, has rebounded in good part because the size and scale of downtown made it an attractive place to live and work when development momentum shifted from the suburbs. More than 5,000 apartments and condos have been built in the city’s core in the past half-decade — most in buildings of less than 10 stories that, more or less, complement what’s here.
Catsimatidis has spoken of wanting to “make a statement” with his building. It’s a shame he didn’t say he wanted to build something that would be as interesting as the rest of the already thriving city. “St. Petersburg needs a skyline,” he’s been quoted as saying. It has a nice skyline — one that, so far, isn’t defined by skyscrapers that block out the sun. I don’t regret the loss of the old Pheil building a bit, but count me among those who don’t reflexively see a 51-story glass tower as the height of progress in replacing it.
Florida’s economic vitality will give rise to more of these conversations. Another, for example, is already occurring in downtown Orlando, where UCF is building a campus. The school is trying to achieve a tricky symbiosis between its new campus and the lower-income neighborhood it abuts — providing economic stimulus and an aspirational focus without gentrifying the residents out of their homes.
Until fairly recently, growth-related issues in our state have been mostly about sprawl. But as more Florida cities attract investment aimed at rejuvenating downtowns, they’ll have to decide whether they’re willing to welcome anything with a wad of capital behind it, or whether it’s worth trying to strike the right balance between what’s there and what’s desired.
At what point, it’s worth asking, does somebody’s “statement” begin to change the conversation that made it the kind of place that attracted them in the first place?
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