Redevelopment leaves bayfront restaurant in limbo
Fresco’s Waterfront Bistro has endured storms, the pandemic and years without a nearby St. Pete Pier; now that the area is booming, its owner and employees risk losing their livelihoods.
St. Petersburg’s downtown waterfront looked decidedly different when local attorney David Sockol bought a small restaurant next to the Municipal Marina in 2003. He changed the name from Apropos to Fresco’s, built an outdoor deck – along with many other improvements – and watched as nearby Beach Drive transformed into a modern array of high-end establishments.
Fresco’s remained an outlier with its older building and laid-back atmosphere. However, the city owns the property at 300 2nd Ave. NE., and wants to replace the facility with a reimagined restaurant that “blends better” with the surrounding area.
“I knew they were planning on redoing the marina,” Sockol said. “I did not know they were going to include Fresco’s in that. I felt if they were going to ask for that, they could have told me ahead of time or asked what my plans were prior to just letting an out-of-town company bid on it or submit a proposal.”
Fresco’s is the de facto gateway to the adjacent marina and The Pier. After demolishing the outdated “Inverted Pyramid” pier (in 2015) and embarking on a $92 million rebuild, officials began focusing on long-awaited Marina improvements.
Mayor Ken Welch issued a request for proposals last month for a private company to redevelop and manage the marina. That followed a 2017 Master Plan that called for modernization and repairs to docks “reaching the end of their service lives.”
The RFP also serves up the waterfront bistro. Applicants can bulldoze the site and operate a new facility, as documents state that “the physical condition of the restaurant is such that complete replacement is envisioned.”
Sockol’s 10-year lease expires in April 2024. He relayed that during extension discussions, city officials expressed concern about the building, primarily due to its degraded seawalls.
“I’m not an engineer, but the engineers I hired to do the inspections said the building itself was structurally sound,” Sockol said. “Now I understand they just want a new, more modern look there, at the entrance to The Pier.”
Sockol moved to St. Petersburg in 1986, and is proud of what he has built – and endured – along the waterfront. Sockol said Fresco’s is the oldest eatery around Beach Drive, and he considers his nearly 100 employees family.
While he would prefer to improve the existing facility and minimize disruptions, Sockol understands local leaders’ affinity for modernization after “spending all that money redoing The Pier.”
“I think the people with the city want to bulldoze the building and put something new there,” Sockol added. “Regardless of its condition, regardless of whether it’s not falling down. It’s not up for discussion.”
That doesn’t mean he’s going down without a fight.
Sockol hired architects to design a new facility. He also has a $4 million budget to demolish the restaurant and build anew.
His goal is to partner with a redevelopment group, and those discussions are ongoing. Sockol believes having the designs, funding and a 20-year tenant “with a following” would strengthen an applicant’s proposal.
“I would think that a 40-year resident who lives here and has a business here would be preferable,” he added. “At one point, they proposed a Margaritaville.”
Sockol noted that his rent did not decrease when the old Pier closed, and the surrounding area was a construction site for several years. He said he found a way to keep most employees – several have been there for 10 to 15 years – through natural disasters and economic downturns.
They know he is working to save Fresco’s, but Sockol said they also realize everyone will likely be without a job next year. That was his primary motivation to save the current building.
While Sockol hopes to oversee the establishment’s reimagining, he expects construction to take a year. Employees will be out of work throughout the closure, even if he is part of the group Welch selects.
“A lot of people have families and everything else,” Sokol said.
He has accumulated “thousands” of regular customers, and Sokol said many loyal patrons have offered to help. He lets them know they could advocate for his proposal in front of the city council.
At least one city official hopes to see the St. Pete staple remain.
Councilmember Gina Driscoll represents the area. Following the RFP release, she told the Catalyst: “I hope that however we move forward, that Fresco’s – even a reimagined Fresco’s – will continue to be a tradition of the marina.”
Sockol noted his efforts to help make the downtown waterfront what it is today. He says he urged people to visit the area, spent $10,000 monthly on an interstate billboard and rented six to eight private marina slips that enabled regional visitors to come by boat.
He said the city followed his lead after several years of success, and built dedicated finger piers. Sockol also noted that restaurants at the earlier Pier received “preferential treatment” with lease renewals, while he was left out of the marina proposal process.
“As of yet, I haven’t seen any appreciation or recognition that I have supported it and did it before anyone else,” he said. “The RFP doesn’t even contemplate that they would look favorably upon a local restaurant in that corner. In this case, they’re directing that to … an out-of-town company. And letting them have a corner that I’ve had – and paid for and built up – for 20 years.”
May 25, 2023at12:42 pm
While a modern looking establishment may be desired to compliment the new pier look , recommendations for closing traffic and becoming pedestrian bound in this area is more desirable. St. Petersburg needs to become progressive in reducing vehicle pollutants and encouraging/ facilitating pedestrian foot traffic.
May 25, 2023at1:07 pm
Please don’t let this happen and put in another chain restaurant serving frozen, fried bar food! Frescoes is a local favorite.
May 25, 2023at3:41 pm
Seems to be a lot of “ignoring history” going on lately. Hopefully the City Council can stand up for some of the legacy establishments. They hold the purse strings.
Judith L Turner
May 25, 2023at4:01 pm
Our public servants seem to think they can bulldoze the soul of our city away and replace it with their donor’s commercial cardboard. This is a very disappointing move.
May 25, 2023at5:00 pm
I think it would be really sad if we lost Fresco’s and/or if the city did not give Sokol preference to develop a new structure, if that’s what the city is determined to do. I’m not against the progress going on in the city, but one thing that’s always been great about St. Pete has been the ability to respect the past in terms of buildings and character while also embracing the new.
S. Rose Smith-Hayes
May 26, 2023at6:10 am
I hate to see the rest of Pier history destroyed. Loyalty means nothing anymore. Please let them stay!!!!
May 26, 2023at6:51 am
I love frescos! I take my out of town friends there to enjoy the hometown atmosphere and the fresh food.
I support frescos and pled with the city, the council to support and keep them here!!
May 26, 2023at7:23 am
This is City Planning and Management at it’s WORST. FRESCO’s is one of my favorite places due to everything about it – great service, food, ambience and blends in perfectly with that marina corner. IF IT AINT BROKE DON’T FIX IT!! They are transforming St. Pete from a comfortable welcoming small city into a cold big city where nobody knows ya, nobody cares and prices are only in the reach of the 1%. Wake up and smell the Tequila mon!
May 26, 2023at8:21 am
Fresco’s is a favorite destination for a lot of folks, including me. It adds to the attraction of the Pier, definitely is not out of place. It is more a symbol of the city of St Petersburg than the new Pier is, in fact. I urge you, the city’s decision makers, to revit the pros of leaving it be and the cons of replacing it with a cookie cutter business one can find on every street corner in every town. Thank you.
May 26, 2023at4:10 pm
That is literally one of the few waterfront St. Pete vibe restaurants we have left. I don’t recognize the place I love anymore. Why do you think we need to wipe away all of our history and the cool vibe we had going? Do not understand. I think the city needs to revisit this decision and give the local businesses a chance. Isn’t staying local our goal? Keep St. Pete Local!!
May 26, 2023at4:39 pm
Support local business. Support Fresco’s Waterfront Bistro.
May 26, 2023at5:23 pm
Fresco’s has a following and it is something that so many live to go to, and has new customers every day. I do not understand the need to bulldoze it if it is just the sea wall that needs to be updated, repaired or replaced. I think the City is shortsighted (and rude) in sending out this RFP without discussing it with a loyal tenant and its loyal following of customers.
May 26, 2023at8:07 pm
No chains here please! Keep it local, respect what Sokol has done, fund whatever structure you want but keep it local!
May 26, 2023at9:44 pm
Frescos was named best waterfront restaurant in the Tampa Bay area, not just St Pete. There is a reason why. Why can’t our elected officials put some thought behind what brought them here to this point as well.
IF we keep this reasoning behind every move that the Mayor put out there, we won’t have a history.
May 27, 2023at2:35 am
I remember when we all tried to KEEP ST. PETE LOCAL. It seems like city officials are too eager to look toward outside businesses. I hope they keep this local business where it is.
May 27, 2023at7:32 am
The thought that Fresco’s…a beautiful spot that thousands of people truly love….may not be around in less than a year is unforgivable. Fresco’s isn’t just an outstanding bar/restaurant, it is a second Home to so many people. My husband has been going to Fresco’s since the day it opened. We’ve celebrated his birthday every year at Fresco’s for over 20 years. The group of customers that stop in for a drink a few nights a week , “the regulars”, are like a family. As are the MAGNIFICENT people who work so hard to make you feel special each time you’re lucky to be there. There is NO BETTER staff of waiters, bartenders & managers anywhere in St. Pete. Each employee has become like family to thousands of customers. All these wonderful, hard working people may lose their jobs permanently? That thought makes me ill. David Sockol has done a remarkable job figuring out a way thru many obstacles….especially the pandemic….to keep his family of employees gainfully employed. The hundreds of improvements David has made over the years should be commended and given great consideration for having Fresco’s be the clear choice to have the opportunity to stay right where it is. Keep up the fight, folks. We can get this done. 💙#savefresco’s
May 27, 2023at9:57 am
All of the wonderful businesses and sense of community in St. Pete is being ruined by over-development and not enough preservation of what makes our city so incredibly unique. Soon enough, the character of the city that is such a draw for people will be lost to the national chains..not the locally-owned entrepreneurs and artists who have made it so. Fresco’s is an amazing local treasure that is, unfortunately, the next in line for rejuvenation without one thought for the support of local businesses who have contributed to the success of our city for years. We have a business on Central and are moving west due to over-development in our area. The beautiful Hoxxoh mural on our building has just been completely covered by a new retail space. Our city is losing it’s soul. Just because you can..doesn’t mean you should. Have an original thought and keep the flavor of our city.
May 28, 2023at9:53 am
The seawall concern is not a issue it can be replaced several different ways without shutting down the restaurant. By using a span beam method the seawall can be done without disturbing areas around the seawall very much.on another note the peir has thousands of snap tie cone holes that were never filled with epoxy on every single part of the concrete deck of the new peir and different seawall add on cap replacements. Anyone who reads this go look for yourself those cones have small steel shafts at the end of them and the salt can intrude through there and get to the steel and therefore crack the concrete none of them were done I don’t know who is watching over who built that place but they did not do a very good job go look for yourself it’ll just be another Saint Pete fiasco like all the concrete bus things on 1st Ave., North and first Avenue south what a waste of money
May 28, 2023at6:56 pm
I wish him well. Frescoes is a great spot and is absolutely appropriate for the area. I also hope the city thought to include an upgraded ferry terminal in the RFP scope of work. In order for the Cross Bay Ferry to succeed and grow, we need to up our terminal game.