SEMINOLE — Once bustling hubs for growing towns, old shopping centers like Tri-City Plaza in Largo and the Seminole Mall have become big, empty spaces surrounded by even emptier parking lots.
“In its heyday, the ’80s and the ’90s, the mall was the place to go, shop, meet friends, have dinner,” said Dale Johnson, a Tampa developer with plans to revitalize the 1960s-era mall in the heart of Seminole.
“Time and market evolution have transformed Florida’s enclosed malls. They are dinosaurs in the market.”
After more than two years of speculation, developers have announced their grand vision to transform the largely vacant mall at Park Boulevard and 113th Street into a shopping destination with a name that speaks to the community’s hopes: Seminole City Center.
At a recent city meeting, representatives from veteran development partners Primerica Group and North American Development Group showed images of shops and eateries set along a wide, well-manicured boulevard that leads to a movie theater.
The partnership’s plans are the most ambitious of several redevelopment schemes gaining momentum at declining shopping centers in Pinellas County. But Seminole is not alone.
In Largo, the first commercial plaza built at U.S. 19 and East Bay Drive, Tri-City Plaza, is being leveled to make way for a new collection of large and small retailers; and on North Missouri Avenue, the aging Midway Plaza is being rebuilt.
In South St. Petersburg, residents who live near the Skyway Mall on 34th Street South hope the easing of city building codes at last will attract an investor with a vision for the faded commercial plaza.
Prospects for quality retail are on the upswing, developers told the Seminole City Council, and the time is right for big public and private investment.
“We really do not want to present something that won’t happen, that can’t happen,” Primerica Group President Richard Trzcinski told the council.
“But now I think we’ve got tenancy correct. I think we’ve got the site plan correct. We have an economy now that, the tide is rising, revenues are up and there’s more cash available for people to spend.”
Anchored by a Publix grocery store, Seminole Mall saw several decades of growth in the 1960s and 1970s followed by years of decline, especially since the 1990s. Its tenants have narrowed to a handful of stores including Bealls, Stein Mart and a CVS drugstore.
Canadian investment firm North American Development Group bought the property for $14.6 million and has teamed with Tampa-based developer Primerica to revitalize it. Both groups have a large portfolio of successful retail projects across Florida and North America with big-box retailers, a mix of boutique stores and restaurants, high-end grocers and cinemas.
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The new wave of commercial development is punctuated by a chic architectural style, outdoor space for music, live entertainment and other attractions that elevate the spaces from functional to a shopping destination.
“It’s entertainment, it’s theater, it’s great restaurants, it’s a lifestyle center,” Trzcinski said.
The developers have promised the city a $32 million increase in the property’s value, bringing in an extra $586,000 in annual tax revenue, if the mall is redeveloped, along with more than 750 new jobs.
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An agreement with the city is in the works in which the developers would get a substantial tax refund, but only after the mall is built.
A deal involving the city, county and state governments also could make use of grants and other incentives to help pay for infrastructure costs, a model used for new shopping centers in Brandon, Orlando and Hallandale Beach, Trzcinski said.
“Never in our proposals will we put at risk the citizens of Pinellas County, the residents of Seminole, to put up any money up-front at all,” he said.
City officials plan to hold a workshop with the developers this month to explore details of a possible agreement for the mall.
On the south side of St. Petersburg, residents hope to lure a developer like Primerica to revamp eyesores such as the Skyway Mall on 34th Street South.
The shopping center housed a Sears, a movie theater and other stores about the same time Seminole Mall was reaching its high point. By the 1990s, the area around Tyrone Square Mall — about seven miles away — began thriving with a cluster of big-box retailers and restaurants.
Surrounded by residential neighborhoods and unable to accommodate sprawling commercial growth, the Skyway Mall and other shopping centers along 34th Street fell into decline.
“There’s a lack of space to be developed in the Skyway Marina District, a lack of land, and the Tyrone area and other areas of the city had larger parcels and more parcels to develop,” said Gary Jones of the city’s community redevelopment office.
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The same dynamic on a much larger scale occurred at Westfield Countryside Mall on U.S. 19 in Clearwater, which has grown into a regional shopping destination, even as smaller malls in the surrounding area have faded.
St. Petersburg city officials aim to entice developers to the 34th Street corridor in part by allowing the mall property and others nearby to be built to maximum height and density levels.
This would make way for buildings up to 15 stories high that could house offices, retail, apartments or a host of other uses.
“There’s not one specific idea. It would be up to a developer and the private market to determine what was most appropriate and what was best for the area,” Jones said.
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Projects already underway in the county should provide newer, nicer places for residents to shop, but may not reach retail-destination status.
The longtime owners of Tri-City Plaza saw the need to tear down a series of strip centers and a movie theater that, at more than 40 years old, simply were becoming worn out.
Kimco Realty is investing about $32 million to bulldoze most of the commercial space along U.S. 19 and East Bay Drive, except for a Publix and a couple of restaurants, to make way for new large tenants, including discount-retailer Ross and smaller shops and restaurants.
“They’re just responding to the marketplace and saying it’s time to refresh this property,” said Carol Stricklin, Largo’s community development director.
City leaders have said even if the new Seminole City Center development doesn’t bring in people from across the Tampa Bay area, as is hoped, the prospect of a renewed shopping plaza will have a huge effect in the local community.
“It is the epicenter of our city and it’s probably the only question we get when (city) council is out at community meetings: ‘What’s going on with the mall?’” Mayor Leslie Waters said.
“They’re very anxious to get their mall back, their Seminole City Center.”