LARGO — Optimism abounded in June when city and community leaders gathered downtown for a groundbreaking of Largo’s first mixed-use project, West Bay Lofts.
After waiting three-plus years, however, expectations had tempered for the $48.8 million project that was to include a five-story building on the 500 block of West Bay Drive and a three-story building on the 600 block.
But Mayor Woody Brown said “once we see bulldozers and activity, I think everybody will be excited for the change that’s coming.”
Seven months later and there are still no bulldozers.
That means developer Gary Tave has missed his deadline outlined in an agreement with the city, putting the entire project in doubt.
“The development agreement provided that construction was to begin by June of 2019 and that the project would be completed by February of 2021,” City Manager Henry Schubert told commissioners Jan. 7. “There has been no construction yet on the site, so we’re seven months past the required start date. And, at this point, based on information from Mr. Tave, even if construction were to begin tomorrow morning, it would not be possible to complete the project as proposed by the required completion date of February 2021.”
According to Schubert, Tave said construction hasn’t begun because of his inability to obtain financing for the project, which was to be comprised of 123 market-rate apartments above 40,000 square feet of ground-floor commercial space in both buildings.
“I’ve certainly come to the conclusion that this project is not viable as currently designed,” Schubert said.
He requested commissioners further discuss the project with Tave at the Jan. 14 work session, where they could consider his options, which include selling the 500 block back to the city or redesigning the project, which would require a new development agreement and an extension of the completion date.
The city had been trying to redevelop the 500 block of West Bay Drive since early 2007, when it purchased the property for $1.8 million.
The recession immediately followed, however, sending property values plummeting. With the exception of leasing some of the land to the former Barley Mow Tavern, the property remained dormant until Tave bought up the entire block for $200,000 in early 2016.
Tave also paid $1.55 million for the 600 block from the owners of the Oak Alley Apartments that used to be located at the site.
In order to help facilitate the project, the city also provided Tave with a density bonus and awarded him a development grant that could net him an estimated $1.7 million — or 50 percent of Largo’s portion of tax increment revenue generated by the project over the next 10 years.
Some Largo residents, including current and former advisory board members who voted against the grant, say enough is enough.
Laura Guroian, a Realtor and co-owner of the Evermore Cafe just blocks away from the proposed project, said the city has been generous and patient to a fault with Tave.
“As a small business, you learn quickly that a vendor that cannot meet commitments needs to be replaced,” she said. “As a resident, I believe the city has invested way too much time, goodwill and, frankly, our good standing in Pinellas County and in the state in an effort to move this project forward. As a Realtor, I urge the city commissioners to craft a new agreement with a new developer who has the wherewithal to meet construction timelines.”
Neil McMullen, a longtime Largo businessman and former member of the Community Redevelopment Agency advisory board, agreed with Guroian that the city has been generous with its time and received nothing in return.
“I think the key thing here is that we’ve got to either get this project going or close it out,” the former City Commission candidate said. “One or the other.”
Guroian said Largo is now a hotbed for development, so they need to find a way to turn this project around.
“We need to turn this millstone into a gemstone,” she said.