With the Hillside Center near St. Petersburg’s Northeast High School now a success, developer Robert Blackmon has set his sights on another derelict strip mall – Tangerine Plaza.
Blackmon, a former council member and mayoral candidate, recently made a cash offer for the city-owned site, which is part of a federally designated food desert. He told the Catalyst that revitalizing the plaza is a chance to turn tragedy into triumph.
Blackmon noted that dilapidated or abandoned plazas decrease surrounding property values. Conversely, he said well-maintained shopping centers complete a neighborhood by providing goods and services within walking distance.
“My whole career has been taking stuff – be it apartments, a strip mall now, a gas station or hotel – and making it a better version of itself,” Blackmon said. “What’s more meaningful, restoring the most blighted property in a neighborhood and reactivating it or tearing it down and building something generic?
“Hopefully, at some juncture, we’ll make some money. But as long as you can even tread water financially on these projects, if there’s a community benefit, I think that’s a measure of success.”
Blackmon acquired the 5,600-square-foot strip mall at 1506 54th Ave. N. in 2019. The pandemic hit, and all but one tenant vacated the property.
He noted that several colleagues said he should demolish the building. Blackmon said smaller mid-century plazas serve as small business incubators.
The first unit he renovated is home to Bayview Barber Co. Its owner, Nicholas Bellaro, said that while he wanted to set up shop amid the “hustle and bustle” downtown, rent is cost-prohibitive.
“And Robert (Blackmon) putting so much effort into revitalizing this and giving it a facelift has really drawn in that foot traffic that we would have gotten downtown,” Bellaro said.
He explained that barbershops are historically community gathering spaces, and plazas like Hillside were once vital commercial centers. Bellaro said strip malls now provide an opportunity to support burgeoning businesses.
The Hillside Center sits between Euclid Heights and Meadowlawn, and he noted that “there’s nothing really like that in the surrounding neighborhoods.”
“It’s a place where you can come to look good and feel good – but also interact with the community and meet people around you,” Bellaro added. “And make friends.”
Encouraged by the effect on Bayview’s business, Blackmon invested over $500,000 in the strip mall. He installed a new roof, repaved the parking lot, installed a fence, restored terrazzo floors and implemented several other interior and exterior upgrades.
Valerie Prietz’s Spindrift Aesthetics is the plaza’s latest addition. The only remaining vacant unit – formerly home to Hillside Sundries – encompasses about 2,250 square feet and features a drive-through window.
Blackmon said it once housed St. Pete’s first Li’l General store and soda shop. “The coolest thing is, every time I go over there, somebody from the neighborhood stops me and thanks me for helping the neighborhood out,” he said.
“Now, in a short order, we’ve gone from, this thing should be torn down, to it’s an integral part of that neighborhood.”
Tangerine Plaza, located at 1794 22nd St. S., has remained mostly vacant since a Walmart Neighborhood Market vacated in 2017. A local nonprofit distributes food from the site on Saturday morning, as the area lacks a grocer.
Blackmon submitted a proposal to the city Aug. 11 to purchase the property for $1.625 million. He pledged to reactive the space as a grocery store-anchored retail center as part of the all-cash offer.
He would also waive property inspection rights and agreed to a deed restriction mandating that it remains a retail center for at least five years. Blackmon said he has no other plans after that term, “it was just to show that was the goal.”
If city officials accept his offer, Blackmon said he would first focus on establishing a tenant mix that attracts traffic. He said major retailers prefer over 30,000 daily vehicles, and the area sees about 5,000.
“It’s not insurmountable,” he added. “You only get so many shots at a grocer who could occupy a space that large because there are only so many in the southeastern United States. But that area is also a pharmacy desert.”
Blackmon would like to see a pharmacy, salon and small restaurant adjoining a grocery store at Tangerine Plaza. He said hearing city council members recently express disappointment over a lack of progress spurred the idea.
The Sugar Hill Group has tried to acquire the property since 2020. While those negotiations fell through, the group submitted an unsolicited proposal in May 2022.
Sugar Hill seeks a 75-year, $1.5 million lease, which equates to $20,000 annually. The group plans to demolish the 40,000-square-foot space and construct two buildings with 115 affordable housing units.
The redeveloped site would also feature a smaller retail center. However, funding remains an issue.
City administrators recently told council members they identified potential project funding. That would require Sugar Hill to have site control, and the plan is to bring a lease before the council by the end of the year.
“The creation of that plaza has so much heartache, blood, sweat and tears steeped in history from so many members of our community,” Blackmon said. “So many people worked so hard to make that a reality in the first place. It’s truly a story of tragedy to triumph and back to tragedy. And there’s a chance for it to triumph again.”