ST. PETERSBURG — Billboards as far north as Tennessee beckoned tourists by the thousands to St. Petersburg's Fourth Street calling it "the longest motel street in the world" in the 1940s and '50s. There were 95 motels between the Gandy Bridge and Central Avenue in 1955, according to an article that year in the St. Petersburg Times. The strip was dubbed "the great white way" because of all the neon signs lighting it up at night. Locals drove out-of-town guests from one end to the other to show off St. Petersburg's own version of the Las Vegas Strip.
The bevy of mom and pop motels was spawned by a building boom after the opening of the Gandy Bridge in 1925 that made Fourth Street the gateway to St. Petersburg and the Pinellas beaches. Kids cheered from the back seats of Buick sedans as families from Ohio, New York or Pennsylvania turned into the Rainbow Lodge, Monticello Motor Inn and the Holiday Motel, where clean, bright rooms were around $5 a night. They were minutes from the Fourth Street attractions: Sunken Gardens' exotic flowers and palms, the collection of local artisans at Craft Village and the Florida Wild Animal & Reptile Ranch, home to zebras, giraffes, kangaroos, jaguars and an elephant.
Today, only 11 of those mom and pop motels remain on Fourth Street. More than half of them were built about 70 years ago. The oldest is the 79-year-old Rusty Anchor at 2301 Fourth St. N. next to the Melting Pot, where there was once an upscale French restaurant named Rolland et Pierre. The neon sign in front of the Holiday Motel's row of rooms with a rainbow of painted doors is burned out on one side. The cottage-style rooms can be rented only by the week now, starting at $295 for one person. The Kentucky Motel's neon doesn't burn at all, but painted signs read "No Franchise Costs. We compete." and "Safe For Families & Senior Discounts."
They are somehow surviving, but not on the throngs of tourists that once flocked to Fourth Street.
"We get a mix of customers," said Rick Dinanath, an owner of the Banyan Tree motel at 610 Fourth St. N. About 60 percent of guests pay the $60 daily rate, while the rest spend $240 for a week's stay. Passers-by stop regularly to take photos of the neon Banyon tree sign.
The 12 units at the King's Rest at 7330 Fourth St. N are usually about 80 percent occupied during the season, said owner Vijay Patel. It still hosts snowbirds from Canada and other repeat customers from the Northeast, but also serves construction workers in town for projects as well as the population of people just trying to keep a roof over their heads. Patel works with some churches and social agencies to house families in need but has the heartbreaking task of asking them to leave when they can't pay the daily rate of about $60.
"I get the people who stop and ask if they can just take a picture of the sign," said Patel, 49. The vintage signs and cheery names like Palms Motel and Azalea Court harken back to a time when a night on Fourth Street was a slice of Florida paradise.
They all attract a variety of clientele now and trouble can be a little more present behind their faded walls. While law enforcement was called just 10 or fewer times to the El Rio, Rusty Anchor and Kentucky Motel in the past 12 months, police went to the Azalea Court almost 100 times.
As owners tire of all that comes with running a motel, the properties are ripe for redevelopment. Fourth Street is steadily welcoming new restaurants, retailers, banks and medical offices as businesses scramble to be close to St. Petersburg's hopping downtown.
"The value of this road has become so high. We've had, in the space of a week, four to five offers," Patel said. He averages eight inquiries to list or sell the King's Rest per month. The highest offer has been $1.2 million, but Patel is holding out for $2 million.
"All the money we've made has been put back in this property. I've got another 10 to 11 years before I pay my mortgage. So I've got to ask for that kind of money," said Patel, who also lives at the motel. It is his home, his livelihood and his retirement plan.
"We get offers all the time," Dinanath said. "I'm willing to sell if the price is right."
He has his sights set on $2.5 million. His partnership paid $1.1 million for the 6,000-square-foot motel in 2005. The Banyan Tree's location, a few blocks from Interstate 275 and downtown, is one of the most desirable of the motels left on Fourth Street. Compared to other sales, however, it's still not likely to fetch $2.5 million anytime soon.
The far-from-stately Monticello Motel, 11 blocks away, sold for $825,000 in late 2014 to a developer who razed the 62-year-old building after scrapping plans to convert it to an open-air food market. The property sold again for $1.1 million in April 2016. The 65-year-old Villa Royal Motel at 3540 Fourth St. N sold for $350,000 in June 2013 and then went for $600,000 four months later. It's now a Chipotle Mexican Grill.
"People are just hanging on for a high price, to see what's going to happen," said Carlos Yepes, CEO of Belleair Development Group, which has redeveloped numerous Fourth Street properties recently. "I'd say probably in 10 years they will all be gone."
The last time one of the properties was bought by someone wanting to run it as a motel and not for redevelopment was when the Siesta Inn sold for $925,000 in 2008. Most of the others sold in the '70s, '80s and '90s for $190,000 to $300,000 to buyers newly arriving from other countries.
"You had a lot of people getting visas, that's what was so popular about those mom and pop motels," Pinellas County Property Appraiser Mike Twitty said. "They were the right investment size and the buyers could literally live in the owner's unit on the property."
Certain visas allow people from outside the country to gain entry to the United States for themselves and their families if they invest a certain amount in a business. They can then apply for citizenship after moving here.
Patel moved from London to Florida with his wife and two young sons in 1999 on a business visa because he was investing in a gas station. In 2005, he paid $475,000 for the King's Rest, which was built in 1948. His two sons grew up there, attended local schools and went on to the University of Florida and the University of South Florida.
The Patel family worked where they lived, taking care of all the maintenance, cleaning, laundry and dealing with guests. Some are repeat customers. Three different couples who spent their wedding night at the King's Rest in the 1950s still stop by every few years to have their picture taken at the motel when they are in town from Connecticut, Georgia and Tallahassee.
"Sometimes it's just a headache," Patel said, referring to the effort it takes with other customers to deter crime on the property. "We have to keep an eye on how much flow goes in and out of particular rooms."
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Just as the opening of the Gandy Bridge made Fourth Street a major thoroughfare for tourists, the birth of the Sunshine Skyway in 1954 funneled traffic along 34th Street. Six years later, the new Howard Frankland Bridge and Interstate 275 diverted even more cars filled with tourists away from Fourth Street.
By 1985, half of the Great White Way's motels were gone. The Florida Wild Animal & Reptile Ranch and Rolland et Pierre were closed while Craft Village had morphed into a flea market. The number of small motels continued to dwindle for 30 years as owners faced the need for costly improvements on old structures, which were ultimately sold and torn down to make way for new businesses with higher profit margins.
"The developers have really been combing Fourth Street since 2012," Twitty said. "The old mom and pop motels on Fourth Street are a thing of the past essentially."
Most of the ones that are left have obstacles that prevent a profitable redevelopment by a new owner if the seller is holding out for a top dollar sales price.
"A lot of owners have been asking a big number for a small site. They are too small to do a modern development on when you have to do retention, and setbacks and meet parking ratios," Twitty said. Some developers who have purchased older, smaller buildings on Fourth Street have bought residential lots behind them to make room for the required parking, Twitty said, but if one owner of a crucial puzzle piece won't sell, that can stymie a whole project.
"That's why you see some of these and think: 'Wow, I can't believe that hasn't been redeveloped,' " he said.
Yepes, who built a Pei Wei and Burger Monger at 1345 Fourth St. N, the site of a former motel, can easily ballpark the size of many of those remaining.
"If it's very small you are very limited. You need more parking. You need a service door for deliveries. You need room for a drive-through," he pointed out. "Maybe you could put a parking deck up but it's too expensive if people are hanging on for a higher price."
Patel will continue washing sheets and cleaning rooms while holding out for the right offer.
"It was a risk, but I took it." he said, "and I think it will pay off eventually."
Times senior researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.