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What's Brewing

Vision for a vibrant Village

By SUSAN THURSTON
Published February 3, 2006


Few destinations enter my radar as much as Old Hyde Park Village. After work, for lunch, on weekends. I gladly find myself there quite frequently.

Sometimes I eat at the Wine Exchange, Timpano or Restaurant B.T. Occasionally, I grab a gift at Pottery Barn.

More often, though, I head straight to the gym, working out my limbs, not my credit card.

It's a reality for a lot of villagegoers, and one that the new owner says must change if the 20-year-old shopping center is to survive.

David Wasserman, principal managing partner of Old Hyde Park Village, was in town this week to unveil his $100-million improvement plan for the outdoor retail center at Swann and Dakota avenues.

The proposal hinges on adding about 270 condos and/or apartments, rebuilding some of the retail and restaurant space, and expanding garage and on-street parking. He also wants to create gateways along Swann and Snow avenues signaling entry to a fabulous place.

It's an ambitious, risky project coming at the start of a real estate cooldown. Not everyone likes the idea of adding condos, and construction could be a long, painful process for existing store owners already struggling to stay afloat.

But it's worth a shot. Do nothing and the center stays pretty much the same. The high-performing stores, like Georgette's and Restoration Hardware, will continue to do well. The smaller specialty shops won't, as evidenced by all the vacant storefronts.

Wasserman wants the center's draw to extend beyond shopping. He wants to create a destination, full of public art and ambience. If they buy something, great. If they don't, maybe they will on their next visit.

To make it more user-friendly, he plans to add parking along the streets and make the storefronts more visible. He grumbles at the prime retail space the gym gobbles on Swann and even dislikes the direction of traffic around the main circle.

He envisions moving the gym to a less visible spot - on the ground level of the residential building planned for the Brooks Brothers site - and opening a small gourmet market in its place.

He acknowledges that the theater, a popular draw for locals, will have to go. So may the beloved fountain, which he says takes up too much green space.

"I think people love the place, but I also think people need to be aware that it's a property that's failing," he said.

Wasserman will tell you he bought the place because he likes "things that don't make sense." But he also likes things with "tremendous bone structure" and potential. The village offered him both.

Wasserman, 46, doesn't fit the traditional developer mold. He's artsy. His wife used to own a gallery. His 18-year-old daughter is an established artist. His 15-year-old son plays bass in an orchestra.

For Monday's media briefing, Wasserman wore electric blue glasses and shimmery reddish pants. He spoke of his projects in Pasadena, Calif., Boston and West Palm Beach, where he commissioned an artist to create a light installation to incorporate into a building.

He spent nine months reviewing the Old Hyde Park Village before coming up with his proposal. He met with neighbors, residents and store owners, all of whom had plenty to say.

His ideas will stir up critics, and plans for the residential units require zoning approval from the City Council, which has been protective of the village.

Store owners have heard some of the same promises before and wonder how two years of construction will affect sales at stores that are doing well.

Others question a bunch of new condos and traffic. Roger Grunke, head of the Historic Hyde Park Neighborhood Association, prefers a more comprehensive look at the village and how it connects with Howard Avenue, another relatively isolated retail/restaurant hub.

He wants the owner to "focus on the problem rather than focus on how to make money."

Some businesses, such as the Wine Exchange, look forward to the changes. The highest per-square-foot revenue producer in the village, the restaurant plans to move into larger digs near the Cactus Club, possibly retooling the former Blackhawk Coffee site.

"We've seen the writing on the wall for a long time and we understand," said bar manager Craig Dean. "We're happy that the new ownership wants to come in and do a lot of work."

Joezette Clausen, owner of Jo Jo's Closet, agrees. She opened in November. Business grew over the holidays but has slowed to a trickle since then. Adding condos, restaurants and stores can only mean more customers, she says.

Especially the kind who bring wallets, not gym bags.

THE LAST DROP: Who needs football to tailgate? Art lovers do it, too. Seen last week in the parking lot across from the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center: a group partying out of their cars before the Wicked Broadway play.

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

[Last modified February 2, 2006, 11:26:03]


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