A relic amid newcomers
By SHARON L. BOND, Neighborhood Times Business Editor
ST. PETERSBURG -- On a prime piece of downtown real estate on Beach Drive sits a funny little anachronism called the Beach Park Motor Inn. For $69 a night, even cheaper in the summer, you can rent a waterfront view.
As a structure, the two-story, brick motel -- vintage 1966 -- is too old to fit in a rapidly changing downtown but too young to be the least bit historic.
But in terms of location, location, location, it is worth a great deal. And that is why, sooner or later, the Beach Park at 300 Beach Drive NE will give way to something bigger and splashier.
Jimmy Aviram, who owns a lot of downtown property including a part of the city's tallest building, the Bank of America Tower, bought the Beach Park in late 2000 after a broker brought it to his attention. According to property records, he paid $1.26-million.
The lure for him was potential for development, he said last week. On Monday he is meeting with an Orlando developer who has built several upscale hotels to talk about the Beach Park site. Mayor Rick Baker brought the two men together.
The Beach Park occupies a prime piece of land on a street where two luxury condominium projects were built in the past few years and a third is in the planning phase. It is within sight of the restored Renaissance Vinoy Resort, a 1920s jewel brought back to life 10 years ago. Next to the Vinoy sits another new, luxury residential project.
Sales prices have ranged as high as $2-million for the larger units in some of the projects. The lowest was in the $300,000 range. Nearby is BayWalk, a $40-million entertainment/retail complex that has added to the vitality of downtown.
Land prices in the city are high because there is little developable land left.
"For the last two years, I have been talking about doing something," Aviram said of the Beach Park site. He wants to put a hotel and restaurant there, but the sliver of land that belongs to the Beach Park will not accommodate enough parking and maybe not even enough rooms, Aviram said.
"I want to put a 4 1/2 to 5 star hotel and a beautiful restaurant," he said.
He is meeting again Monday with Richard Kessler of Orlando, who has developed two hotels there and restored the Casa Monica Hotel in St. Augustine. Kessler was traveling and not immediately available for comment.
Aviram said Mayor Baker put Kessler in touch with him, which the mayor confirmed, after Kessler contacted him and asked what was going on as far as development in the city.
Baker said it was not inevitable that the Beach Park had to go. But "I think it is very likely. The property has become such a valuable piece of property. I think it could be put to a higher use."
Dan Harvey, who owns Harvey's 4th Street Grill, owns the block behind the Beach Park that now is used as a parking lot. He said he and Aviram had a verbal agreement to join forces to develop the whole block. But Harvey considers that to have fallen through. He said he had not talked to Aviram in three weeks.
"We are going forward without him," Harvey said of his own plans to develop a mixed-use project that may include hotel, condominiums and retail space.
However, he added, the group he is working with is designing a project that will be able to incorporate Aviram's project if it is done separately. The design will allow it to "look like they blend together. It can be done any time early or late," Harvey said.
"We are waiting on the hotel guy," Aviram said last week when asked if he still had a deal with Harvey. He also is working on his own plans for the Beach Park.
Aviram, 55, is from Romania and has been in the United States 26 years. He came to St. Petersburg six years ago after purchasing the Maximo Marina, which is not far from the Sunshine Skyway. He is an owner/partner on three downtown properties other than the Beach Park: the Bank of America tower; McNulty Station, a collection of five buildings near the bank tower; and another piece of mostly vacant real estate called the Tropicana Block (north of Central, west of First Street) where Aviram and Miami developer Tibor Hollo are planning a still to be defined mixed-use project.
He does not like to talk about himself.
"I try to keep a low profile," Aviram said.
In that regard, the 26-room motel is much like its owner. It quietly goes about its business, renting rooms and pulling in money. Although the property could be put to much more lucrative use, the motel is serving its purpose until that day comes.
"We have guests that have been coming here for 20 years," said John Herrera, manager of the motel. "A lot of their family members are down here retired and they come down to visit."
Herrera said the motel stays full during spring training in February and March.
"March is crazy because we've got a sailing regatta and spring training is going on," he said.
Downtown events such as triathlons, sailing regattas and festivals such as the upcoming Rib Fest fill the motel, he said.
The Beach Park is entering its busier season after a typically slow summer.
"We do get a lot of snowbirds," Herrera said of the seasonal guests who come to Pinellas County to wait out the cold up north in rooms that are clean with simple furniture, a microwave and a refrigerator. Guest records still are handwritten, but each room has computer hookups and there is a fax guests may use in the tiny but nicely appointed office.
One retired reverend from Ohio stays Jan. 15 through March 15 at the Beach Park. An older woman who calls the motel home several months spends some of her extra time helping the housekeepers, he said. The motel employs two housekeepers, three desk clerks and one maintenance man. Herrera, 40, has been manager for a year and a half. Before that he was a desk clerk.
The regatta taking place this weekend nearly filled the Beach Park.
"We've got people here from Brazil, Italy, Germany and China," Herrera said.
Tod Sackett of Ohio was one of the sailors on hand.
"I stayed here 10 or 15 years ago," he said as he sat gazing at the waterfront. "You can pull right up. It's convenient. The price is right."
Sailors know the Beach Park is the place to stay, said Sackett, 48. He agreed it resembles the Florida that existed before development became so dense.
Herrera said that when the regatta room renters leave tonight, they will make reservations for next year. Even in the slow, very sticky summers when the rates this year dropped to $49 for a room, the Beach Park has appeal. Herrera said people book rooms to see the fireworks.
"You've got to be here on the Fourth of July and see," he said of the festive atmosphere the motel has. "Friends have been coming here. Everybody picnics with everybody."
In his eyes, the Beach Park is not a relic of the past.
"Don't get me wrong. The rooms are not like the Vinoy. The rooms are clean," Herrera said. "The view -- that's what people talk about."
St. Petersburg properties owned in whole or in part by Jimmy Aviram:
1. Beach Park Motor Inn, 300 Beach Drive NE. Aviram bought in 2000 for $1.26-million.
2. Bank of America building, 200 Central Ave. Aviram owns with Dean E. Kucera of St. Petersburg and Ron Bailey of Tampa. They paid $41-million for it in March 2002.
3. McNulty Station, First Avenue S and Third Street. Five buildings that include Accenture, AmSouth Bank, Mercantile Bank. Aviram is one of a group of investors, other identities unknown, who paid $11-million for the property in late 2001.
4. Tropicana Block, bounded by First and Second streets and Central and First avenues N. Bought by Aviram and Tibor Hollo, a Miami developer, for $4-million in June 2001. A large, mixed-use development is in the planning stages for the property.
5. Maximo Marina, 3701 50th Ave. S. Aviram bought in 1996 from Echelon.
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