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St. Pete City Council backs office, hotel projects

Margie Manning

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Plans by United Insurance Holdings Corp. to build a $50 million office building in downtown St. Petersburg moved forward when the City Council approved the sale of vacant city-owned land to the property insurance company for $5 million.

United (Nasdaq: UIHC), which does business as UPC Insurance, expects to hire 300 new workers, some of them from south St. Petersburg, as part of the project.

The UPC deal was one of two developments approved by the City Council May 2. Council members meeting as the Community Redevelopment Agency also gave the green light to DevMar Development’s proposed boutique hotel in the Edge District.

Both projects represent continued revitalization in St. Pete’s urban core. The UPC building, which would become the new corporate headquarters for the company, would be the first new office construction downtown since 2007.

The UPC project, detailed here, includes a 150,000-square-foot Class A office building, a 500-space parking garage with public parking on nights and weekends, and space for a hotel and potential residential units.

Brad Martz, CFO, United Insurance Holdings

UPC’s 250 workers currently are spread over three buildings downtown. The new project would change that, giving the company room to add workers while maintaining its culture, which is a key differentiator for UPC,  Brad Martz, chief financial officer, told the council.

“We built a great workforce here in St. Pete. We look to continue to do that for the next few years under a single roof on an incredible campus here downtown,” he said.

UPC is buying 4.6 acres at 800 1st Ave. S. The deal calls for the city to vacate the part of 2nd Avenue South that separates UPC’s current headquarters at 800 2nd Ave. S. from the land it’s buying one block north. The company is expected to close that part of the street to traffic. It’s not a new idea. The city made the decision years earlier for another project.

There will be plenty of green space, said Albert Alfonso, the architect on the project.

“John Forney [UPC CEO] is a fanatic when it comes to landscape and water features and elements that really enrich the employee experience,” Alfonso said.

The project hits many of the city’s economic development goals, said Alan DeLisle, city development administrator. It will save the city the cost of building a parking garage on its own, it will generate $2 million in property taxes over 10 years, and add almost $23 million in additional earning power from the 300 new jobs, he said.

Those jobs are full-time positions paying a minimum of $15 an hour, said City Council member Gina Driscoll.

“That’s meaningful. Those are jobs that pay the bills and that’s what we need more of, and here’s a company that’s going to help us lead the way on that,” she said.

“High-paying jobs solve a lot of other problems,” added City Council Vice Chairman Ed Montanari, who led the discussion. Council Chair Charlie Gerdes recused himself from the vote because he is part of a company that recently sold property to UPC.

The UPC deal was approved unanimously by the council members who were present and voted, as was the hotel deal, although that one faced more scrutiny from the council.

DevMar, a Detroit-based development company that is relocating to St. Petersburg, plans to build an 11-story, 139-room hotel with retail and restaurant space at the southeast corner of 1st Avenue North and 11th Street North.

Council members questioned whether the developer would provide access to existing businesses during construction, and whether noise from nearby venues would become an issue once the project was finished. They also asked if the 42 parking spaces the hotel plans were adequate.

“The Edge District is incredibly vital and parking is one of the growing pains we are having,” Gerdes said.

The 42 spaces the hotel plans are in keeping with city code requirements, city officials said, although the city also is looking at new code requirements for parking later this year.

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