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One of St. Pete’s oldest shopping centers gets a makeover

Margie Manning

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Octapharma Plasma has leased 14,000-square-feet at Central Plaza.

Saglo Development Corp., the Miami real estate company that owns Central Plaza Shopping Center, is giving the retail center in the heart of St. Petersburg a major facelift.

The company is renovating the 73,000-square-foot property so it can attract the highest caliber businesses as tenants, said Hue Chen, Saglo president.

Hue Chen, president, Saglo

Saglo has owned Central Plaza since 2014, but there’s renewed focus on the property as the city of St. Petersburg works on a draft master plan for the area around 34th Street and Central Avenue, tentatively dubbed Union Central. The 375-acre district runs along 34th Street from 22nd Avenue North to 3rd Avenue South and includes a few blocks on either side of 34th Street as well.

Central Plaza has played a key role in development of the area for decades. Built in the early 1950s, it was the first regional shopping center in the area and the first commercial threat to downtown St. Petersburg businesses, and dominated until Tyrone Square Mall opened in 1972.

Now, the growing number of thriving businesses on Central Avenue starting downtown and pushing west is encouraging for Chen, who said Central Avenue now isn’t the same as it was in 2014.

“Now that we have seen evidence of nicer restaurants and businesses open and be successful along the Central Avenue corridor closer to 34th Street, I believe that may allow us to bring businesses and restaurants to our center that are not so discount-focused as the tenants that we have had in the past,” he said.

Upgrades

Saglo paid $7.265 million for Central Plaza in 2014, when the property was anchored by a Goodwill store and a Family Dollar. Goodwill moved to a standalone property at 2550 34th St. N. in late 2017.

Saglo divided the Goodwill space in half. Octapharma Plasma, a plasma donor center, has a long-term lease for 14,000-square-feet in the space closest to 34th Street and is investing significantly in buildout, Chen said.

With Octapharma, the retail center is 65 percent leased, with 25,000 square feet of vacant space.

“We’ve had a lot of tenants that approached us that want to be here, but we have to be careful, because with commercial leases, especially bigger companies, it’s extremely long-term leases. The leases can be as long as 30 years. So when you make that decision, you are locking in a rent schedule and the type of use that’s there for the next few decades. We want to renovate the property first to attract the highest-caliber businesses and retailers that would want to be there,” Chen said.

Saglo is repainting the shopping center, installing LED lighting and cameras for increased safety and security, adding landscaping, and sealing and striping the parking lot. The company is replacing old canvass awnings with modern-looking metal ones and is covering the walkways with a floor covering that looks good and is skid-resistant. It’s also doing roof work.

Faced with ecommerce competition, brick and mortar retail has transformed. Consumer service businesses and restaurants are now expanding into retail centers and Chen is focused on finding tenants that he said fit the “four F’s” — fun venues that provide entertainment; food venues including restaurants; fitness venues such as gyms; and a phonetic F offering, physicians and other medical businesses.

Saglo currently has three other retail centers in Hillsborough County – Seminole Heights Plaza in Tampa, South Bay Plaza in Sun City Center and Sun Point, near the Amazon distribution center in Ruskin. The company recently sold the Shoppes at Armenia in Tampa to Clearwater-based European Equities Corp., the same company that bought an earlier Saglo holding, Palm Harbor Shops.

Saglo, owned by the Glottmann family, likes density. “We like owning property that is right in in the middle of all the population and where there are residents north, south, east, and west.”

Chen is bullish on retail in the Tampa-St. Pete area, where the overall retail vacancy rate is a very low 4.6 percent. Pinellas County specifically is the most densely built-out county in Florida. Not a lot of new shopping centers have been built, but the population is growing.

“There always will need to be a certain amount of physical retail to meet the demands. When I say retail, I include medical offices, fitness centers, restaurants and even certain schools and colleges that like to be in retail centers … especially in areas that have strong population density,” Chen said. “I think the retail industry will be strong moving forward, because fundamentally it’s not over-supplied, you have increasing demand for it from the sheer number of people increasing in Pinellas County population growth, and there’s many uses for retail because it’s the only asset class on major thoroughfares with strong parking.”

History

Historic image of Central Plaza from stpete.org

Central Plaza at one time had two grocery stores, Publix and A&P, according to Groceteria.com.  It also had well-known retailers for the time, such as a Belk-Lindsey department store, Jon Wilson wrote in a 2009 thesis, “Shaping the Dream: A Survey of Post-World War II St. Petersburg, 1946-1963, published by University of South Florida.

“Central Plaza became the linchpin and symbol of new St. Petersburg. It provided a prototype study in land use, environmental considerations, competing business interests, and urban planning,” Wilson wrote.

That thesis in part detailed how commercial development in the post-World War II era replaced what had been rich farmland in the Goose Pond area, flanking Central Avenue between 30th and 35th Streets. Wilson also raised the question about whether the city would have been better served by more debate at the time about the best uses for the land.

Central Plaza in the 1950s (Source: Groceteria. com)

Fast forward to 2019, as the city is reimaging the 34th Street and Central area, the proposed Union Central District, with the tagline “The heart of St. Petersburg.”

There have been three public meetings, as well as neighborhood meetings and online survey, coordinated by consulting firm Kimley-Horn.

“I didn’t understand the history of Central Plaza. It was a unique history. This was the retail shopping area west of downtown until Tyrone Mall came in and wiped all that out,” Jared Schneider, a transportation and urban planning professional at Kimley-Horn, told the Citizens Advisory Committee for the South St. Petersburg Community Redevelopment Area Monday.

The draft master plan, which will go before the Community Planning and Preservation Committee on Nov. 12 and before the City Council on Dec. 12, includes dozens of recommendations for public safety, transportation, green space and urban form such as types of housing.

One of the suggestions is to paint a huge mural on the back side of Central Plaza along 1st Avenue North.

“We’re investigating that,” Chen said. “We don’t want to slow down our repainting process . We’re going to repaint it and later on  if we find artists that want to display their art in mural on the back side of the property, that could be an option.”

Saglo is a family-owned, entrepreneurial company and a long-term owner that wants to stay engaged with the community, Chen said. He’s encouraged by the Union Central plan.

“What we’re hoping is that the same way that the Grand Central District  just to the east and the Edge District and other districts that have been created in the St. Petersburg area have given an identity to that defined area, we’re hoping that same thing happens with this new district,” Chen said. “I think it can help.”

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