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Former police headquarters becomes The Central, honors ‘Courageous 12’

Mark Parker



Leon Jackson is the sole surviving member of St. Petersburg's Courageous 12. A much-anticipated mixed-use development will honor the 12 Black officers who fought for equal rights. Photo by Mark Parker.

Swirling dust from an active construction site could not dampen moods at the St. Petersburg Police Department’s former headquarters Wednesday afternoon.

Local leaders gathered en masse to celebrate construction commencing on the long-awaited mixed-use redevelopment project previously known as Orange Station. They were also there to honor Leon Jackson – the sole surviving member of the Courageous 12.

In 1965, 12 Black police officers successfully sued the city to receive the same rights and treatment as their Caucasian counterparts. While Orange Station rebranded to The Central, its public plaza will still feature a monument paying tribute to the plight of the Courageous 12.

Plans for the project began in 2019 under former Mayor Rick Kriseman, who attended the event. The Central will include a 15-story Autograph Collection Hotel and the first downtown Class A office space since the 1980s.

The estimated $200 million project in St. Petersburg’s Edge District is a joint venture between J Square Developers, DDA Development, Ellison Development and Backstreets Capital. The 2.1-acre site at 1301 Central Avenue will feature a 12-story office tower with 125,000 square feet of much-needed Class A space.

“Today has been a long time coming,” said Will Conroy, founder of Backstreets Capital. “These projects take a long time. They don’t get conceived overnight. They don’t come out of the ground overnight.”

The development team envisions The Central’s public courtyard serving as a community gathering space. Image provided.

Casey Ellison, CEO of Ellison Development, called it “highly amenitized” office space, more than Class A.” He said the 160-room hotel is St. Petersburg’s first four-star facility since the historic Vinoy Resort & Golf Club, “which was quite a while ago.”

It will include a restaurant, bar, rooftop pool, conference rooms, event spaces and a fitness center. The Vinoy is the city’s only hotel currently operating under Marriott’s upscale Autograph Collection umbrella.

The Central will also feature 14,000 square feet of ground-level retail and a 548-space public parking garage. However, the man – and group – that its public plaza will honor received the day’s only standing ovation.

The Central will feature a 15-story Autograph Collection Hotel. Image provided.

The development team envisions The Central’s public plaza as a community gathering place with outdoor cafes. Most importantly, it will feature local artist Ya La’Ford’s tribute to the Courageous 12.

“The Central is poised to further elevate this vibrant transformation right here in the Edge District,” said Mayor Ken Welch. “We are standing at the convergence of a 30-year overnight success here in the City of St. Petersburg.

“It symbolizes progress; it symbolizes innovation and a commitment to building a future that honors our past and our history, while embracing the opportunities of tomorrow.”

La’Ford said the concrete, steel, aluminum and bronze sculpture with a blue LED luminary represents strength, wisdom and optimism for the city’s future. She credited Jackson and the Courageous 12 for risking their livelihoods to fight for justice and equality.

A rendering of the monument honoring the Courageous 12. Image provided.

La’Ford said public art can educate and enlighten communities and evoke social change. “St. Pete is such a special and unique place, and our city stands as a testament to progress,” she added.

“Yet for many years, the St. Petersburg sun did not shine so brightly here.”

Lorna Taylor, CEO of Premier Eye Care, helped make the monument possible with a $150,000 donation. La’Ford unveiled final renderings of the sculpture, which remains offsite.

Jackson, 83, addressed a crowd that included the late Courageous 12 members’ families. “I see the officers standing in the back,” Jackson said. “It (suing the city) was not only for us. It was for you, too, so you wouldn’t have to go through what we went through.”

Several current St. Petersburg police officers attended the ceremony. Photo by Mark Parker.

The public-private partnership behind The Central encountered several challenges before Wednesday’s ceremony. Kriseman selected the development group’s proposal in 2019.

The city sold the property, appraised for $28 million, for $5.2 million. The initial plan underwent several revisions, eliminating luxury residences and increasing office space.

In August 2023, the city council approved designating eight of the project’s housing units for those earning less than 80% of the area median income (AMI). All 42 of The Central’s apartments are now capped at 120% of the AMI, currently $73,080 for one person.

“Through vision, partnership and collaboration, today we are moving forward with the right project for our community in this space,” Welch said. “The Central, with its blend of office and retail spaces, will be a world-class development that meets so many of the needs and priorities of our community.”

Casey Ellison (left), founder of Ellison Development, artist Ya La’Ford (second from left), Leon Jackson (third from left), Mayor Ken Welch (third from right) and the Courageous 12’s surviving family members at the groundbreaking ceremony. Photo by Mark Parker.

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1 Comment

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    S. Rose Smith-Hayes

    March 1, 2024at8:01 pm

    The view of the monument brought tears to my eyes. Thank you Ms. Ford for your vision.

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