Is Bill Edwards becoming the Henry Flagler of St. Petersburg?

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A day hasn’t gone by recently without some interesting news coming out of downtown St. Pete, much of it centering around the ambitious plans of Bill Edwards.

Edwards’ efforts remind me of what I learned during horse carriage tours of St. Augustine. On those tours, the guides would point out building after magnificent building owing their grand construction to the vision of Henry Flagler.

A honeymoon visit by Flagler to St. Augustine led to the formation of a friendship with Dr. Andrew Anderson, who inspired Flagler’s vision of the sleepy town as a winter playground for the rich.

In January of 1888, Flagler’s Ponce de Leon Hotel opened for the first season, and its sister hotel across the street was well underway. With the purchase of the Casa Monica to the east, renamed the Cordova, Flagler’s triumvirate changed the ambiance of St. Augustine forever.

The hotels Flagler built now house Flagler College, the City Hall complex and the Lightner Museum.

As his hotels were modifying the skyline, Flagler was also developing a railroad, building churches, establishing a hospital, erecting commodious homes for his business officers and molding comfortable neighborhoods for his employees.

Obviously, Bill Edwards is no Henry Flagler. After all, Edwards isn’t that rich!

But ten, twenty, and fifty years from now, will visitors to St. Petersburg take carriage tours of the city and have guides point building after magnificent building owing their grand construction to the vision of Bill Edwards? I think so.

Start with the news du jour.

“Bill Edwards strikes again,” writes Katherine Snow Smith of the Tampa Bay Times. “He’s just bought an entire downtown city block with virtually unlimited development options for $12 million.”

The property is  known as the Tropicana block because of the four-story, pink Tropicana office building at 25 Second St. N that sits at the north end of the property. The site has been owned by Miami investors since 2001. After moving the small businesses that occupied the building out in 2012, Tropicana Redevelopment has planned to raze the 41,000-square-foot, century-year-old structure to make way for a hotel with condos and retail.

Edwards, who appeared to pay cash for the project since no mortgage shows up in public records, declined to comment on his plans for the property. But it’s safe to expect something big.

“The development potential there is very high. It has the most intense zoning in the city,” said Dave Goodwin, St. Petersburg’s planning and economic development director. The zoning allows for high density be it office, entertainment, residential, lodging, retail or a combination of any or all of these uses.

The first question about Edwards purchase of the Tropicana block is not what he plans to do with it, but why it took so long for someone to want to do something with an entire city block in the heart of the city recently named to the New York Times annual must-visit list?

I really don’t care if Edwards builds a statue of himself on the property, so long as its no longer a vacant lot. Although I am sure Edwards and his proconsul, former Mayor Rick Baker (who really seems to be enjoying himself in his current position), have something special in mind for the property. If Edwards is taking suggestions, a boutique hotel, such as something from Marriott’s Autograph Collection, would be amazing to see in downtown St. Petersburg.

The Times‘ Smith recently wrote about one of Edwards’ other major projects under development — Sundial.

“(S)even tenants of the soon-to-reopen shopping center have been confirmed by the retailers themselves,” writes Smith. “So far, the lineup brings some intriguing new names for St. Petersburg shoppers who too often feel like the country cousins who have to cross a bridge to reach the higher-end offerings in Tampa.”

The biggest name of these tenants is Ruth’s Chris’ Steakhouse.

A couple of thoughts on RCS coming to the ‘burg. First of all, I disagree with Smith’s casting doubt on whether “St. Petersburg diners will regularly spring for $43-and-up steaks at Ruth’s Chris, other pricey entrees at a celebrity chef restaurant, or at Sea Salt, a darling of Gourmet magazine and the more affluent Naples crowd.”

This is a town hungry for upscale food. Look at the restaurants near RCS which are consistently packed: Parkshore, Cassis, Marchand’s, Z-Grille, etc. Their entrees may not be $43-and-up, but they’re not cheap eats, either.

The only issue I have with RCS coming to Sundial is that it will likely cut into Rococo’s business. I’m not a huge fan of Rococo yet, but the owners have put millions into renovating the place, which is located at the edge of downtown. It’s important for the future of the city for business and restaurants located there to flourish, so, hopefully, Rococo’s biz isn’t hurt too much by the presence of another steakhouse.

Of course, if you ask smart restaurant folks like Mike Harting of 3 Daughters Brewery, the more the merrier. A build-up of restaurants brings a build-up of residential and other commercial property and vice versa.

Speaking of which, Drew Harwell reports that, “builders will break ground soon on a downtown apartment building the size of a city block, adding to a flood of new rental construction in an area developers are betting is a gold mine of young urbanites.”

Called the Hermitage, the $65 million project, expected to open by the end of 2015, would feature 348 one- and two-bedroom apartments, developers said. Rental prices were not disclosed.

Here’s the key takeaway from this development:

“With all the apartments that have been built, all the apartments that have been proposed, there’s still an undersupply,” Morris said. “There were so many years of no development … that we are still way behind.”

Read that again. “… there’s still an undersupply.”

When I read the news of The Hermitage’s impending groundbreaking, I tweeted, “… and the Rays want to move to Tampa?”

There are literally hundreds, if not thousands, of people planning to move to St. Pete’s downtown in the immediate future and yet the baseball team can’t get out from its contract at Tropicana Field quick enough.

I say, let them go and let’s redevelop the stadium property.

I’m sure Henry Flager, err, I mean Bill Edwards would have some ideas about what to do with it.

Peter Schorsch is the President of Extensive Enterprises and is the publisher of some of Florida’s most influential new media websites, including SaintPetersBlog.com, FloridaPolitics.com, ContextFlorida.com, and Sunburn, the morning read of what’s hot in Florida politics. SaintPetersBlog has for three years running been ranked by the Washington Post as the best state-based blog in Florida. In addition to his publishing efforts, Peter is a political consultant to several of the state’s largest governmental affairs and public relations firms. Peter lives in St. Petersburg with his wife, Michelle, and their daughter, Ella.