Experience, sincerity, transparency and an intimate understanding of the affordable housing struggle are just a few reasons three Black developers believe school officials chose them for a historic project.
Pinellas County Schools (PCS) leadership recently selected a joint venture between Dantes Partners and Goshen + Cornerstone to transform the 99-year-old Tomlinson building overlooking downtown St. Petersburg’s Mirror Lake into attainable housing for teachers and staff. Collectively known as the Tomlinson Community Partners (TCP), the group will incorporate 40 apartments, retail space and amenities into the preserved three-story building encompassing nearly 41,000 square feet.
Including “community” in their moniker was intentional, as stakeholder collaboration and feedback are priorities. Buwa Binitie, founder and CEO of Washington, D.C.-based Dantes Partners, likened the 50-year minimum lease with PCS to a marriage.
“I want to see the faces of the teachers who are able to reside at the property,” Binitie told the Catalyst. “The teachers that are able to stay in the community because of this housing is what I most look forward to.”
Miles Alexander III, a decorated Army veteran and principal with Ft. Lauderdale-based Alexander Goshen, called the group “working-class people.” He noted that previous life experiences provided an understanding of the need for quality, “luxury” affordable housing.
Alexander believes PCS’ leadership appreciated that aspect and their desire to immerse themselves in community culture. He also stressed the importance of engaging local teachers and staff at the core of the unique public-private partnership.
Alexander said his ultimate goal is to provide a relaxing space where educators can feel appreciated, relax and walk around the lake.
“That feeling of being home and being at peace,” he added. “And ready to get up and do it again for these children in St. Pete.”
The developers are familiar with and frequent visitors to the city. Dantes Partners will oversee the affordable housing aspect of the Tropicana Field/Gas Plant District redevelopment.
Alexander Goshen recently submitted a proposal to create around 200 affordable and workforce 200 affordable and workforce units at the 800 Block site. Leonard Burke, founder of Cornerstone Strategic Partners, is a Tampa Bay resident.
While born in Miami, he graduated from the University of South Florida and previously served as director of asset management for the Tampa Housing Authority. Burke credited TCP’s flexibility and its diverse team of professionals “well-versed in this market” for helping them advance through the selection process.
However, he believes the group’s commitment to creating a community impact sets them apart.
“There’s a sincerity and genuineness about our approach and how we do business,” Burke said. “We want to make sure we can do what we say we’re going to do. So, execution, diversity – but more importantly, just a realness that comes with how we operate.”
Burke explained that Goshen + Cornerstone formed when Alexander moved to Florida, and the two realized synergies between their firms. Burke noted the industry’s lack of Black developers, and they decided to combine their skills and resources instead of competing.
The goal was to “make a name” for themselves throughout the state and, eventually, the Southeast. Cornerstone is working with Dantes Partners on the Trop redevelopment, and Burke and Alexander have looked to Binitie for mentorship over the years.
“What was the likelihood of having three strong Black developers come together and do a transformative project on our own merit without anyone having to sponsor or be the ‘big brother?’” Burke asked.
Like Binitie, Alexander said helping people who look like him and have experienced inner-city challenges is a passion. He noted that many people only see successful Black men as athletes or entertainers, and the lack of role models in fields like real estate.
Binitie stressed the importance of experience and substance and called the group’s track record “formidable.”
In addition to remodeling the Tomlinson building – opened in 1924 as St. Petersburg Junior High School – TCP will construct an 11-story tower above a three-level parking garage and a seven-story midrise. The 113 workforce housing units are for those earning between 90% and 120% of the area median income (AMI).
The remaining 112 units are available to the public at market value. Binitie said preserving the historic Tomlinson building informed the design process, and Burke noted the group was “super mindful” of evolving neighborhood’s character.
“We don’t come into a market or a project blind; we do our homework,” he added. “We talked to neighborhood associations about what we’re proposing, so that we can understand the tone and temperature for this building in this neighborhood.”
Burke has always wanted to build a downtown high-rise and eagerly awaits bringing his wife and children to the Tomlinson groundbreaking. He said that would provide tangible meaning to the countless hours of work and time away from family.
Binitie immigrated to the U.S. from Nigeria in 1993. He noted that his parents sacrificed so he could leave Africa to seek a better life – and the recently awarded projects carry extra meaning on his 30th anniversary in the States.
“It just goes to show what is possible in America,” Binitie said. “The Tomlinson site is a great commemoration …”