By Peyton Jones, P.h. D.
This is the third article in a series on the Bay Plaza Development that was slated to remake downtown in the 1990's. To read the first two articles, click here: Bittersweet Memories of Bay Plaza Part I, Bittersweet Memories of Bay Plaza, Part II
And the Walls Came Tumbling Down
Even though Bay Plaza never came to fruition, the project left a lasting mark on the landscape. The Bay Plaza project appeared poised for a comeback when, in January 1992, the J.C. Nichols company paid $900k for the Tropicana Hotel (25 Second Street N.) and established a company headquarters there. Later that month, over the fierce objections of preservationists (including Preserve the 'Burg, then-called St. Petersburg Preservation), the 68-year-old Soreno was imploded to make way for a green space along Beach Drive.
Over the next few years, Nichols, with help from the city, expanded its presence downtown. When several owners refused to sell, the city used its power of eminent domain to condemn their properties and purchase them at market value. [See article below for the impact of eminent domain on one business.] Even as preservationists succeeded in saving several historic buildings, a subject we will cover next week, by 1995 a private real estate development company owned or controlled more than a dozen properties—nearly six blocks of downtown real estate, as shown in the diagram. There was lots of buying going on, but not much building.
When the project finally went belly up, Nichols owned or co-owned more than a dozen downtown properties and owed tens of millions of dollars to various mortgage-holders, including the city, who eventually retook control of some of the properties. St. Petersburg’s built environment, from office buildings to restaurants to parks to neighborhoods, are the physical markers that distinguish it from other cities. But buildings are also money—capital fixed (temporarily) in space as property. As much as capitalism propels the creation of fixed spaces, it also puts extraordinary pressure on societies to either renew those spaces or scrap them altogether. In many ways, this is the story of urban redevelopment. But residents are not simply passive actors cowed into submission by politicians and greedy capitalists.
Next week, in the final installment of the Bay Plaza series, we look back at the organized opposition that saved historic buildings and undermined the privatization of downtown.
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