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Developers again ignore City Hall site

A second round of bidding for the Largo property produces the same result as the first - one bid.

By ERIC STIRGUS

© St. Petersburg Times, published June 13, 2000


LARGO -- In recent weeks, the city's Community Development Department buzzed with anticipation as staffers took telephone calls from about 30 people interested in developing the sky blue, maze-like structure once known as City Hall.

Last fall, only one bidder was interested, and the city scrapped the bidding process and started again. This time, officials were convinced, things would be different.

The excitement grew as the city's Web site received 44 hits requesting more information about the 8-acre property near West Bay Drive.

But the result was the same. Just one developer sent a bid on the land, and glum city officials are wondering what went wrong.

"It boggles my mind," said city Community Development Director Ric Goss.

"I'm deeply disappointed," said Mayor Bob Jackson.

This time, however, officials plan to forge ahead and review the proposal.

Some observers speculate the lack of bids stems from the city's failure to express how it wants to see the property developed. A few others think developers are waiting to see how the ongoing road widening project on West Bay Drive progresses. A third theory is some developers are scared off by the city's desire to preserve Ulmer Park, which sits in the middle of the 8-acre site.

This time, the lone proposal came from a Denver-based group that owns or manages about 30,000 apartments across the country. The developer, Simpson Housing, has proposed transforming the property into a multipurpose area with 144 apartments, 26 three-story townhomes, an 11,500-square-foot restaurant and 12,500 square feet of retail space. The development would be known as Kensington Park.

Simpson Housing built the Stonegate Apartments in Palm Harbor and owns the pricey Island Place and Island Walk apartments on Harbor Island in Tampa.

The Downtown Largo Main Street Association is scheduled to look at the Simpson Housing proposal Monday and make its recommendation to city commissioners in August.

Main Street officials say their disappointment over receiving just one bid will not cloud their judgment in reviewing Simpson Housing's proposal.

"We have to see this proposal before we can make any kind of decision," said Lotta Baumann, the association's manager.

The city, touting the project as a key element in the revival of Largo's downtown, last year asked for bids on City Hall and the now former Police Department headquarters on East Bay Drive. Largo got two bids on the City Hall site. Hospice of the Florida Suncoast filed the only bid on the Police Department site.

But one developer, Beauland Homes in Dunedin, withdrew its City Hall proposal in early October, perturbed at statements some officials made that its concept would not encourage visitors to come to downtown Largo. Two weeks later, city commissioners agreed to restart the process.

City officials were optimistic that the second time around would bear more fruit than the first.

The city advertised the land in local business publications such as Florida Trend. And more progress on a road widening project on West Bay Drive, city officials and business leaders believed, would attract attention.

"Instead of going forward, we're going backward," said City Manager Steven Stanton. "We're not headed in the right direction."

Stanton said he does not think the lone bid shows developers do not believe in the possible resurgence of downtown Largo.

"The demographics are too strong. The location is too strong," he said.

- Information from Times files was used in this report.

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