The two finalists vying to redevelop St. Petersburg’s historic Tomlinson Adult Education Center and its 1.7-acre property are also establishing a footprint in the area through two other significant projects.
For Black-owned Dantes Partners, based in Washington, D.C., that means building over 800 affordable housing units as part of the Tropicana Field/Gas Plant District redevelopment.
Founder and CEO Buwa Binitie explained that providing attainable housing is in his – and his company’s – DNA. The Pinellas County School (PCS) district decided to retain ownership of the 99-year-old Tomlinson building to help mitigate the local workforce housing shortage, a problem Binitie faced as he embarked upon his career.
“I found myself leaving great urban cities that I always dreamed of living in,” he said. “Regardless of the amount of money I made, I was always reminded that I could not live in close proximity to my job.”
Like many schoolteachers, staff and other workers around St. Pete and the county, Binitie drove over an hour to reach his downtown office. After launching a development firm, his focus became building housing for “a young Buwa.”
Binitie said his over 100 employees could also relate to that experience. Not only do they hope to help people live where they work, but Dantes Partners also strives to create affordable housing undiscernible from market-rate units.
“You can go to any urban city in America, and you can immediately tell what an affordable housing building looks like,” Binitie added. “And I’ve never understood that because there isn’t any such thing as an affordable brick.
“The only reason why those buildings look the way they did is because no one gave any thought to people of modest means. They felt because they’re poor, they should just be happy with having a roof over their head.”
He called that inhumane, and the antithesis of Dantes Partners’ mission. Binitie noted that people “still want to look good,” regardless of income level.
Welcome to St. Pete
Binitie’s family often vacations in Florida, and his daughter has long advocated for him to establish operations in the state. The Tropicana Field redevelopment presented a “major” opportunity, and Binitie said he welcomes a challenge.
He convinced Tampa Bay Rays and Hines leadership that his firm was the best choice to oversee the affordable housing aspect of the generational project and now looks forward to St. Petersburg serving as his southern headquarters.
While Binitie declined to comment on many specifics regarding the Tomlinson redevelopment out of respect for the selection process, he noted Dantes Partners has extensive preservation experience. The firm recently closed on a $160 million, 577-unit project in New York City, with a “significant portion” designated historic.
“To the tune that we were able to raise $20 million in historic tax credits to help preserve the building,” he added. “So, we’re very comfortable – and we like it. It adds a little bit of flare, frankly, from a design standpoint.”
Dantes Partners is leading a joint venture with Wesley Chapel-based Goshen + Cornerstone on the Tomlinson project. The Tomlinson Community Partners (TCP) proposal calls for 225 residential units, with 30% designated workforce housing for those earning 90-120% of the area median income.
The group would incorporate 40 apartments with retail space and amenities into the preserved three-story building. Plans call for an 11-story tower above a three-level parking structure and another seven-story midrise.
The 182-space parking podium would also feature “a wrap of community facing” retail and amenity space along 8th Street and 3rd Avenue North.
Binitie said the joint venture with Goshen + Cornerstone stems from a promise made to himself years ago. As someone who was essentially self-taught and lacked much in the way of career guidance, he committed to sharing his knowledge with “individuals that look like myself.”
“Not only was it frustrating finding housing,” Binitie said of his early career. “But it was also frustrating finding mentors.”
Miles Alexander III is the managing partner of Goshen + Cornerstone and founder of Alexander Goshen. The certified minority business enterprise owner is also an Army veteran and Purple Heart recipient.
The firm’s leadership reached out to Binitie a few years ago, and they have remained in touch since. They also introduced him to the Rays and Hines development team.
“They too want to be successful … and just pouring into them all of my experiences to date so that they avoid all the pitfalls I encountered,” Binitie said. “And if business comes out of it, even better.”
He relayed the mutual benefits of public-private partnerships, like the Tomlinson redevelopment. TCP proposed a long-term ground lease with PCS and would pay $90,000 annually, with a yearly interest increase of 3.5% over 50 years.
Binitie said his focus for the estimated $62.2 million project is on successful collaboration rather than steep profits. While interest rates, supply chain issues and ever-increasing construction costs pose challenges, his experience with similar projects has shown that the public partner “is extremely flexible to make the project happen.”
“We’ve done this successfully 12 times with a public or nonprofit entity who has entrusted us with their most prized assets,” Binitie added. “Our approach is less about profits and more about being a collaborative partner that is singularly focused on ensuring the project is successful.”