Tampa Bay Business Journal
Real estate developers have long considered Central Avenue the “spine of St. Petersburg” — and with some big investments in the pipeline, there are more vertebrae to come.
The Union Central district — a title city council officially adopted in 2019 — extends from Third Avenue on the south to 22nd Avenue on the north. It encompasses most of the property between 31st Street to the east and 35th Street to the west. Downtown seamlessly transitions into the Edge district and segues into the Grand Central district.
But at the 31st Street and Central Avenue intersection, the three miles of boutiques, trendy restaurants and luxury residential complexes transition into the Union Central district, which is currently defined by outdated strip malls and free-standing nondescriptcommercial buildings.
That won’t be the case for long. Jonathan Daou and Blake Whitney Thompson, a pair of veteran developers known for creating boutique concepts and walkable neighborhoods, have a vision for the district. It’s the last opportunity, they say, to create a new neighborhood along Central Avenue.
Beyond the developers’ plans, there’s also the SunRunner, a bus rapid transit line that will run from downtown St. Pete to St. Pete Beach. SunRunner will begin operations in October. The route, which is expected to spark a wave of development along its length, has many stops along First Avenue North and First Avenue South and in the Union Central district.
Union Central District looks much the same today as it has for decades but Daou and Thompson plan to breathe new life into the area.
Daou developed much of the Edge district, and Thompson has invested in the Grand Central District. They plan to use their combined experience of creating a sense of place to “build a new ecosystem” in Union Central District.
The fringe of the district’s presence on Central Avenue has been the first to capture the interest of developers. Gallery 3100, a 122-unit apartment at the intersection of 31st Street and Central Avenue, opened its doors in 2021.
Across the street from Gallery 3100, the YMCA of Greater St. Petersburg is considering a redevelopment of a portion of its property. Thompson points to the momentum started by the two projects as the catalyst for this rapid change headed to the district.
Five finalists are in the running to become the master developer of the Y’s property, which could bring a wave of residential and commercial to the 11.47-acre site. Daou and Thompson are one of the teams vying for the project.
The duo is currently under contract to acquire several properties along the corridor. They plan to develop those sites to make the area “a bookend for Central Avenue,” Thompson said.
Thompson credits the city — and especially Liz Abernethy, director of planning and development services for St. Pete — for much of the recent focus on the district. He said the decision to soon allow some upzoning in the area puts St. Pete in the perfect position to ensure density — and, in turn, affordability — becomes a priority.
The city is looking at various methods to allow for more density in different areas, including plans to implement a transit-oriented development overlay. This would allow developers to build more densely populated projects in defined areas around SunRunner stops.
Between the SunRunner launch, the PSTA Grand Central bus terminal in the center of the district and an abundance of bikes, scooters and all-around walkability on this portion of Central Avenue, Thompson said the area is primed for an influx of residents.
“This district, in our opinion, is kind of the last district on Central Avenue,” Thompson said. “We’re going to use the opportunity zoned district to make long-term investments. We’re using the proceeds from other projects and reinvesting the profits we’ve made other places back to this community.”
The U.S. government created opportunity zones through the Tax Cuts & Jobs Act of 2017. These zones are designed to funnel private economic investment into disadvantaged areas by allowing investors to access capital gains tax deferral benefits. A portion of land from 34th Street to 28th Street is one of the 16 opportunity zones in Pinellas County.
Thompson and Daou are under contract to acquire the plaza at 3235 Central Ave. as well as the site of the former Sam’s Seafood and Chicken, located at 3210 Central Ave.
They intend to refresh the plaza, which is home to Hibbett Sports and Octopharma Plasma, and make it a family destination. Thompson said they will use the plaza’s bones and rebrand it to highlight that, unlike much of Central Avenue, the spaces available are rather large. They will focus on local tenants and following the 10-year hold on the site — due to it being an opportunity zone investment — it would be available for redevelopment.
“We will do what we did in the Edge district, but this redevelopment is really geared toward small businesses that may have felt pushed out of the other parts of Central,” Daou said. “Businesses that want walkability but don’t want to pay those high rents. I’ve consistently said that a lack of supply of retail is as much of a barrier to small businesses as a lack of supply of residential is to affordable rents. This is an affordability issue and our plan is to add walkability and cohesiveness so that it is a neighborhood you can stay in and not have to travel to find the necessities of your lifestyle.”
Sam’s lies directly across the street from the plaza and is adjacent to the bus station.Thompson and Daou plan to build a multifamily complex on the site. Directly beside Sam’s is a small strip retail plaza that was purchased in 2021 by 3270 Central Avenue LLC, which is owned by Sarasota developer Charles Githler. Thompson said there is a possibility of a joint venture between the two sites.
Toward the northern portion of the district, David Weekley Homes is proposing building 65-unit townhomes. The 2.70-acre site is at 3200 First Ave. S and was purchased in two transactions that totaled $6.1 million — one was completed in November and the other in February.
The company is developing Grand Central Townhomes at 98 29th St. S. and completed Burlington Townhomes in 2020 at Burlington Avenue and Eighth Street North.
“One of the problems up in Union Central is for years, you’ve had Walmart and Walgreens and O’Reilly Auto Parts, it’s really a less intimate part of Central Avenue,” Daou said. “Why Grand Central and the EDGE are so interesting is because they’re local and intimate. Union Central suffers from a lack of community, coziness and integrated retail that connects to each other — a nice boutique next to a nice coffee shop next to a good bakery — there’s none of that.”
Daou said they plan to change that and create an environment where residents know their neighbors, have small businesses they love to support, art and intentional design and accessible apartments.
Prior to the last two years, only a handful of investors have eyed what is now called the Union Central district as the Sunshine City’s next up-and-coming neighborhood.
Frank Guerra, founder and principal of Altis Cardinal, first identified the area as the next chapter for the city’s development years before developers started to consider the district to be a profitable endeavor.
In 2015, his company invested in 10 acres at 3201 3rd Ave. N and transformed it into Elements on Third, home to 431 apartments and 112,000 square feet of self-storage space. It opened in phases and was completed in 2021, shortly before Altis Cardinal sold the apartment portion of the project to Dallas-based Lurin for $125 million.
Guerra said when he and his team began looking at St. Pete a decade ago, they realized that Central Avenue was evolving into a defined corridor. It was spilling past Interstate 275 and soon would stretch west to 31st Street. They began looking for areas with large parcels that would allow them to build a horizontal development for middle market rents, rather than having to build a high rise or midrise on a smaller parcel closer to an already booming area.
Many at the time questioned their strategy, Guerra said, but the development soon became a massive success. Guerra hopes to repeat that formula in the Skyway Marina district and used the funds from the sale of Elements on Third to buy the 34-acre Ceridian Office Park.
“Why is the [Union Central district] catching fire now? Because of all of the things we saw years ago,” Guerra said. “There are a few larger commercial properties left from when 34th Street was the main connector between St. Pete and Tampa. There is walkability, and it’s close to the trolley that takes you downtown, the bus station and now [the SunRunner]. The area is underutilized and prime for conversion.”
The appeal of the Union Central district, according to Guerra, is rooted in its affordability, which allows developers to build for tenantswho are not at the upper crust of the rental scale. This fills a need in demand for the local workforce who cannot afford to live downtown.
Guerra estimates in the next 10 years a mature and fully stabilized district will be complete, one filled with life and the character that draws people to the rest of Central Avenue.
Central Avenue’s miles of small businesses, quirky restaurants and one-of-a-kind retail has made each neighborhood branching off of the “spine of the city” highly sought after destinations. With the plans proposed, the Union Central district seems to be just a few years away from replicating that success, bringing residents and captivating retail to this long-overlooked section of the corridor.
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