City to buy land at lower cost

An impasse with the owner of five parcels on West Bay Drive ends, but O'Houston's pub's long-term lease there remains.

Published March 11, 2007

LARGO - City Commissioners are moving ahead with a plan to buy five downtown parcels on West Bay Drive for $1.8-million.

"I think this is going to serve as a catalyst for everything we've hoped for in downtown Largo," Commissioner Gigi Arntzen said before voting to pursue the purchase last week.

The city had reached an impasse with property owner Chris Alepa of Amber & Onyx Realty over the original purchase price of $2.16-million and an outstanding long-term lease held by Chris and Eddie Houston, owners of O'Houston's Irish Pub.

But in a discussion with acting city manager Norton "Mac" Craig late Tuesday afternoon, Alepa offered to lower the price.

"I think this is fair," Alepa said. "It gives them room to negotiate with Ed Houston."

Largo officials intend to combine the five parcels with two others the city acquired in October 2006 so they can market the full block - a total of 1.1 acres - to a private developer.

City officials have expressed a desire to see the parcel, located in the middle of the West Bay Drive Community Redevelopment District, filled with retail shops and residential units.

A proposed amendment to the district's redevelopment plan will allow for higher densities in the area, said Community Development Director Mike Staffopoulos. "It's part of the city's strategic plan to create an urban environment in the downtown corridor," he said.

Staffopoulos said the city should close on the property by early April, once the budget has been amended. The purchase will be funded through property tax revenues generated by the growth of downtown property values.

Several commissioners said the purchase would allow the city more discretion in how the property is redeveloped.

"I think it would be beneficial to us in the future and it would give us greater control of our downtown development," said Commissioner Rodney Woods.

The issue with the Houstons' lease remains unresolved.

"The worst-case scenario is that we can't get a developer interested in the property because of the long-term lease and they'll feel they can't work with the property with the Houstons' business being present," said City Attorney Alan Zimmet.

Commissioner Andy Guyette and others expressed confidence the matter could be worked out. "Down the road, I think we can work with the O'Houston's pub, and if not us, maybe a developer," Guyette said. "I think this is our best chance of being able to get that, what I consider the cornerstone of our future downtown."

Rita Farlow can be reached at farlow@sptimes.com or (727) 445-4167.