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The next 'inn' thing for SoHo?

Long-term suites and upscale hotel rooms are envisioned a stroll away from the eats and action.

By SUSAN THURSTON, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published October 11, 2002


HYDE PARK -- Think S Howard Avenue and images of restaurants, stores and bars come to mind.

Want a thick steak? Head to Bern's.

Want a smooth Guinness? Mosey to MacDinton's.

Want a room to rent? Better call a cab.

The nearest hotel is a drive away.

Two local developers hope to change that.

Russ Versaggi wants to convert the 1301 SoHo apartments into long-term suites for business people and tourists.

Up the street, Ron Stewart is considering a 100-room upscale hotel on the Mac's Sports Pub site, formerly Tuscan Oven and McHale's Chophouse.

Though still in the early stages, both plans aim to add to the SoHo experience. Instead of sending people to Harbour Island or downtown hotels, business owners could direct them to places within walking distance.

"We're very much in favor of it," said Gordon Davis, owner of Le Bordeaux restaurant, who is active in the SoHo Merchants and Residents Association. "It's a great mix."

Versaggi's request goes before Hillsborough's city-county Planning Commission on Monday. Stewart, who co-owns Seven 17 South on Howard, hopes to have a proposal ready by the end of the year.

Versaggi wants a land-use change that would allow commercial zoning on the entire site. Currently, the property is approved for commercial uses only along Howard. The back of the site is zoned residential for apartments.

"It's not a huge departure," he said. "I would hope the traffic impact is less."

Neighbors aren't so sure. Some have opposed opening bed-and-breakfasts in South Tampa and shake their head at a suites hotel.

"I don't approve of putting anything in a residential area that doesn't belong there," said Sue Lyon, president of the Tampa Homeowners, an Association of Neighborhoods.

Versaggi sees his idea as an asset to the community. It would draw customers to SoHo businesses and increase the value of the land, he says. It would not have a restaurant, nightclub or other tourist amenities.

Turning the apartments into a hotel would cost about $2.5-million, he said. He would have to build a lobby and furnish the 72 units. The 1960s complex already has two pools.

Versaggi began looking into the idea after commercial real estate agents inquired. The 1.8-acre site near Southview Avenue marks one of the few large properties along Howard suitable for a hotel.

The Bayshore Royal, at Howard and Bayshore Boulevard, operated as a popular hotel for decades but became condos many years ago.

Versaggi, who owns several rental properties in Tampa, bought 1301 SoHo five years ago. At the time, drug dealers and prostitutes plagued the complex and several units needed serious repairs, he said. A few had fire damage.

Today, all of the units have been renovated and restored. Rents range from $650 a month for a one-bedroom unit to $850 for a two-bedroom.

"We've made the neighborhood a lot nicer," he said.

Renting it as a hotel could generate significantly more income, especially if a chain such as Hilton or Marriott got involved. He hasn't approached them yet but he may in the future. Both have extended-stay hotels, he said.

Versaggi has no schedule in mind and isn't married to the idea. Despite the influx of new apartments, including the SoHo at Madison up the street, about 95 percent of his units are occupied.

"If the neighborhood is against it, we won't do it," he said. "It's a nice apartment complex, and if we can add some value to the development by making it a little nicer, then we would contemplate it."

The Planning Commission meeting starts at 5:30 p.m. on the 18th floor of the County Center, 601 E Kennedy Blvd. The commission will make a recommendation to the City Council, which has final say.

Even with approval, the owner would have to seek a zoning change to allow the hotel.

Versaggi said the project would take at least a year. Existing tenants would stay the length of their leases.

-- Susan Thurston can be reached at 226-3394 or thurston@sptimes.com.

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