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20-story project set to go

A developer has a deal in hand to spend $70-million on a 20-story apartment and retail complex in St. Petersburg.

[Times photo: Dirk Shadd]
Developer Paul Morris poses in front of his plan for an apartment and retail complex in the 400 block of Beach Drive in downtown St. Petersburg. He says the deal is set for the project.

By SHARON L. BOND

© St. Petersburg Times,
published September 11, 2001


ST. PETERSBURG -- A developer is set to build a $70-million high-rise complex near the downtown waterfront, the fourth such project in four years.

The Villas at St. Petersburg would have twin 20-story residential towers, each with 100 apartments, along the 400 block of Beach Drive N.

The towers would sit on top of a 620-space parking garage that is the equivalent of three stories high.

Facing Beach Drive and across a courtyard from the residential towers will be a three-story commercial building that will have shops, restaurants, galleries and a health club. An open-air fourth floor will have two swimming pools plus a lap pool, a clubhouse, gazebos and landscaping.

These are the plans of Paul Morris, who owns Morris Development Group. He moved to St. Petersburg from Los Angeles in January. A native of Atlanta, Morris, 53, said he visited St. Petersburg when he was a child.

He negotiated a 99-year lease with the John M. Hamilton family. The lease becomes effective Oct. 5. The Hamiltons have owned the 400 block of Beach Drive for 40 years. Courtnay Hamilton, a son of John M. Hamilton, confirmed the deal.

"The project will start going vertical in March," Morris said. "That is not an "if.' "

At $70-million, the Villas "is a huge deal," said Kevin Dunn, managing director of development coordination for the city. "I don't think we have had anything come close to that. It's a monumental project."

Demolition of five buildings on the 400 block of Beach Drive will begin in December, Morris said. All but two of the nine businesses there have moved.

Dunn said Morris met with city officials several times to discuss the project but had not submitted formal plans. The city will have to approve the project before demolition or construction begins. That process starts before the Environmental Development Commission early next month.

Because of the sensitive issue of tall buildings going up near the waterfront, Dunn said, city officials urged Morris to talk up his project to nearby neighborhoods and to residents of the Presbyterian Towers.

Morris has done that over the past few weeks. He meets with the North Shore Neighborhood Association tonight. The Villas will have one- two- and three-bedroom apartments. Rental prices won't be set for another 18 months. But Morris said his rates probably would be close to what ZOM Development Inc. of Orlando will charge when its luxury rental project called the Madison is finished. The Madison is on the southern edge of downtown. Its first phase contains 277 units, and plans for the second phase call for 250 more. Rents will range from $750 for a small one-bedroom apartment to $1,715 for a three-bedroom unit.

Three high-rise condominium buildings have been built in downtown St. Petersburg since 1997. Both the Cloisters, 14 stories high, and the Florencia, 21 stories high, are on Beach Drive. The third condominium complex, Vinoy Place, is being completed nearby on Fifth Avenue NE. It has two towers with 10 stories of homes on top of parking and offices.

The Presbyterian Towers complex sits behind the 400 block of Beach Drive. The Villas would partly block those residents' views. Morris said to ameliorate that, he decided on two towers with a view cut down the middle of the property rather than one solid building.

"The waterfront issue is a sensitive issue here," said Dunn, the city development coordinator. Morris is sensitive about the height of the towers and what the reaction will be.

"Everybody complains they don't want the beach blocked," Morris said. "If you build a three-story building on this piece of property, then you are not going to see the water."

Morris said that in addition to having two towers instead of one building, he is angling back the commercial buildings facing Beach Drive. He will get rid of the 14 parking spaces along Beach Drive and widen the pedestrian area.

Can the city support nearly 750 luxury apartments coming online in the next few years? The Villas will have 200, and ZOM will build 527 apartments if it completes both phases. The first phase, with 277, is well under way.

Morris does not believe he is competing with ZOM. He says a city needs 10 to 15 percent of its work force also to be downtown residents for new commercial ventures such as BayWalk to succeed. For downtown St. Petersburg, he says that means at least 3,000 to 4,000 people living downtown.

"You can't depend on outlying neighborhoods to support" the commercial development, he said.

Ambe Njoh, an associate professor in urban planning at the University of South Florida in St. Petersburg, agrees.

"Residential property has become very important with the newer mixed-use land use development," Njoh said. Cities that are busy during the day but ghost towns at night are not "the human settlements they ought to be."

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