TAMPA BAY TIMES
ST. PETERSBURG — A New York company headed by a Greek-American billionaire who owns Manhattan’s largest grocery story chain is under contract to buy and redevelop an entire block in downtown St. Petersburg.
Mayor Rick Kriseman said late Friday that he is having lunch next week with John Catsimatidis of the Red Apple Group to discuss plans for the 400 block of Central Avenue, now the site of a crumbling garage and the infamous “cheese grater” building. Caught in limbo for a decade, it is arguably the most valuable parcel available for development downtown.
“I’m obviously thrilled,” Kriseman said. “It was a priority of mine from the time I got elected to try and make something happen on that site because it was kind of the missing tooth in the smile on that block.”
Red Apple Group, a real estate and aviation company with $700 million to $800 million in holdings in New York, Florida and the U.S. Virgin Islands, was founded by Catsimatidis in the 1970s. Ranked No. 182 on Forbes list of the 400 richest Americans, the Greek-born Catsimatidis also owns Gristedes supermarkets, a Manhattan staple, and unsuccessfully ran for mayor of New York in 2013.
Catsimatidis’ son, John Jr., who has a business degree, works in Red Apple, and it was not clear Friday whether father, son or both would be meeting with Kriseman on Wednesday.
Broker Mark Stroud said that interest in the site drew more than a dozen prospective buyers. Stroud did not disclose the contract amount, but said it exceeded the $15 million initial asking price.
Demolition is scheduled to start July 18 on the three existing structures on the block — the historic Pheil Hotel, an adjoining building and a three-story garage, whose tenants were notified Friday that July 15 will be their final day to park there. Any new construction would not occur until next year.
Stroud said Red Apple is considering a “substantial” mixed use development that would include stores and “more than likely,” residences. Among other ideas on the table is a hotel.
Kriseman said he did not know any details but said the city’s two greatest needs currently are a new office building and a hotel with conference space.
“A higher-end hotel would be nice,” he said. “We turn business away when the Vinoy gets filled and I’d rather folks have a choice in St. Pete rather than looking at the beaches. We obviously have a lot of new apartments and condos going in an around downtown right now, so I don’t think that’s a great need.”
The 400 Central block has been in limbo for years because of a dispute over a long-term land lease. But the once-warring owners of the block resolved their differences last year, and preservationists recently dropped their opposition to razing the 1920s-era Phiel Hotel, dubbed the “cheese grater” after its facade was covered with aluminium grillwork in the 1960s in an ill-conceived attempt at modernization.