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St. Petersburg: Office tower to tumble

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BayView Tower, a former federal building, will bite the dust to accommodate shops, offices and a 34-story tower with 260 condos.

By SHARON L. BOND, Times Staff Writer

Published March 20, 2005


ST. PETERSBURG - The Art Deco style elevator doors in the lobby of BayView Tower will be saved. Furnishings probably will be given to charities. Some of the older parts of the 1960s building will be salvaged and used in an art collage.

Owner Joel Cantor, however, can't get back the 6,300 hours or $7-million he spent restoring the building.

BayView Tower, formerly the William C. Cramer federal building, will be knocked down early next year, taking with it a registered bomb shelter. The seven-story building will officially close on Dec. 31.

"I didn't want the building to come down," Cantor said last week. He got attached to it while renewing it.

He had planned to make BayView part of a complex by building condominiums and shops around it, but the space proved too small to efficiently handle those uses and the needed parking.

New plans call for the site, swept clean of the office building, to be a residential-retail-office complex, including a 34-story tower with 260 dwelling units. The tower in the $125-million project, to be called SkyPlace, will be 360 feet high. The city's tallest building is the Bank of America building at 386 feet.

Condos will cost from $285,000 to close to $3-million.

Cantor's company, Gulf Atlantic Real Estate in Tampa, bought the former federal building at 100 First Ave. S during an auction in 1999 for $3.9-million. It was empty, having lost its premier tenant, the regional benefits office of Veterans Affairs, the year before. The VA moved to Bay Pines where the VA Medical Center is.

"It was dark and had the old terrazzo and government-issue marble," Cantor said. He heard about the auction from a friend and stopped in St. Petersburg on his way to the beach to take a look at the building on auction day.

"The building was just left for dead. I didn't know where to start to calculate" restoration costs, Cantor said.

He walked around downtown, ending up at the Vinoy, where he saw a great example of the beginnings of the downtown renaissance in St. Petersburg. The 1920s hotel, which stood empty and crumbling for years, was refurbished at a cost of $93-million. It reopened in 1992.

Cantor went to the auction and bought the federal building. Then he went on a mission to fix up the building and get tenants in there. For three years, it has been full.

"It is 175,000 square feet. Every inch of everything was rented. We took part of the boiler room and made it into offices," he said.

Last summer Cantor announced plans to build a residential-retail complex surrounding the renovated building he had named BayView. The office building was completely restored by then. A residential tower with street-level shops would be added along with a parking garage.

Parking turned out to play a decisive role in the latest plans.

The BayView has so few surface spaces that Cantor is renting others from McNulty Garage so tenants have parking with their offices.

"The biggest complaint about the building was that there was not enough surface parking," Cantor, 41, said.

Local architect Tim Clemmons designed that project, which was approved by the city. As he and Cantor worked to figure out parking, they realized that the eight-story parking garage they planned would be inefficient because of its small footprint and would be one floor higher than the BayView, blocking most of the building's natural light.

Architects called in for advice asked why anybody would want to build an eight-story garage on a lot so close to the water.

"I hemmed and hawed for four months. I told Tim Clemmons that I wasn't going to take it down. I was emotionally attached to the building," Cantor said.

More advice came from prestigious Chicago architectural firm Perkins+


"You have the makings of a great site," Cantor was told. "We recommend you start from a clean slate."

That, plus the loss of two major tenants - Care Medic Systems and Omega Insurance Services, because of ownership changes - and huge increases in property taxes and insurance premiums pushed Cantor to tear the building down.

Now it is 80 percent occupied. Tenants whose leases are up stay on a month-to-month basis. By September, only 20 percent of the tenants will be left.

Sometimes when things seem to be going sour, Cantor comes over from his Tampa office and walks through BayView. Remembering what it looked like before and realizing the difference now gives him a charge, he said.

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