The city of St. Petersburg is taking another crack at generating developer interest in Tangerine Plaza, a city-owned retail center in Midtown.
The city expects to issue a request for proposals for the property, Alfred Wendler, director of real estate and property management, told the St. Petersburg City Council Thursday.
It would be the second RFP for the site, which is in a low-income area of the city and has seen two major grocery stores open and close since 2005. Six proposals were submitted last year but none moved forward.
The city is looking for a long-term way to address the issue, according to a statement from Mayor Rick Kriseman’s office provided to the St. Pete Catalyst. “Whatever we do, we want to get it right and have something that will last for a generation or more. We want it to be sustainable. We are not interested in quick fixes that don’t last,” the statement said. (See the full statement below.)
Wendler disclosed plans for the new RFP during a City Council debate on a measure to extend the agreement with The Sembler Co. to be property manager for Tangerine Plaza for two more years. Sembler was brought in after the city acquired the property through foreclosure two years ago, and has assisted the city with repainting the property, repairing roofs and air conditioners, and landscaping, Wendler said.
The City Council voted to extend the property management agreement, but not before an urgent plea for a solution from City Council member Gina Driscoll, whose district includes Tangerine Plaza. She said the center is in the middle of a food desert, an area where it’s difficult to find fresh fruits, vegetables and other healthy foods. The statement from the mayor’s office took issue with that description.
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“About two years ago, there was a market analysis done for the shopping center that included a 2.5 square mile area around it. In that area, the average household income is about $35,000 a year and the average household size is 2.93. So on average you’ve got three people in a home living on $35,000 a year. You can see why this could be an issue with that many households clearly struggling,” Driscoll said. “Many don’t have transportation to go outside of the area to get their groceries. Something that many of us take for granted, stopping at the grocery store on the way home, is something that’s out of reach for many of our residents. It’s a very serious problem.”
There are currently two vacant storefronts at Tangerine Plaza, in addition to the 30,000-square-foot anchor that previously housed a Sweetbay Supermarket and a Walmart Neighborhood Market. Walmart continues to pay rent on its former space. The city has asked Sembler not to try to fill the vacancies because of the unknown plans for the property, Wendler said.
The situation requires creativity, including thinking about the smaller spaces in a different way, Driscoll said.
“I can’t help but think about how under the leadership of Leslie Curran and some folks from our arts community that the 600 block of Central went from a vacant blighted empty row of storefronts to a vibrant cultural spot that ended up turning into what it is today,” Driscoll said. “Maybe there are folks who are local in that neighborhood or those who want to offer something new to the residents in that area — if they knew up front it’s a popup situation or a short-term situation — that space could be utilized in a way that could provide something for the community other than empty storefronts to look at.”
Longer term, she said she would not vote for any agreement that did not include a grocery store.
“The fact that more people are not outraged by hunger in our community is startling to me,” said City Council member Brandi Gabbard.
Gabbard and City Council member Darden Rice suggested pursuing a proposed grocery co-op.
“That is a community led initiative. What better creative solution is there than for the community to come together to find a solution to this heart-breaking issue,” Gabbard said.
“One of the things that we’ve experienced is a lot of people with a lot of good intentions try to get something going and it comes down to lack of funding and inability to perform, or to convince the city administration that they can execute their vision,” Wendler said. “As the city does not need to make money on the property we have a lot of flexibility as to who we can put in there. We can bring someone on board that a normal shopping center would not be able to have in the way of nominal rent … With this next round we’re trying to get creative. We’ll explore more nontraditional routes and options. If someone comes up with an idea and the only thing lacking in their idea is the money, we’ll see if we can assist them in overcoming that hurdle.”
Tom Greene, assistant city administrator, said a 30,000-square-foot grocery store is not likely to work, but Tangerine Plaza is a priority for the administration.
Here’s the full statement from Mayor Rick Kriseman’s office on Tangerine Plaza:
“The City of St. Petersburg purchased Tangerine Plaza with the idea of having more control of what happens there to best serve residents. Currently, we are in litigation involving the site across from the street. We will await clarity on that issue, and will then issue an RFP for both sites, tied together, which has more value.
“This administration is open-minded about the future of Tangerine Plaza. However, we also recognize there are pressing needs, like affordable housing as well as food opportunities.
“Whatever we do, we want to get it right and have something that will last for a generation or more. We want it to be sustainable. We are not interested in quick fixes that don’t last.
“Finally, it is important to note that Tangerine Plaza is not a ‘food desert.’ There is a reason Sweetbay and Walmart closed. When we implemented a food shuttle on the site, offering free rides to grocery stores, it was only minimally utilized.
“We must think about the future of Tangerine Plaza differently.”