BY JOSH BOATWRIGHT
Published: March 5, 2015 | Updated: March 6, 2015 at 07:40 AM
ST. PETERSBURG — In a little more than a year, there will be room for about 400 more people to live near downtown’s western edge within walking distance of restaurants, art galleries and Tampa Bay Rays games.
Cranes and bulldozers already have cleared out an entire city block along First Avenue South to make way for The Hermitage Apartment Homes, an eight-story, luxury property with 348 units that will command high rents.
On Thursday, executives from Coral Gables-based Allen Morris Company hosted an official groundbreaking for the $70-million project at 750 First Ave. S., which promises to bring a new wave of urban dwellers to a section of downtown that’s yet to see major redevelopment.
Company CEO W. Allen Morris recounted childhood memories of visiting nearby Redington Beach and Clearwater’s old Osceola Inn, which his grandparents once owned.
A recent trip to St. Petersburg with his wife convinced the Florida developer to make downtown the next location for his giant real estate firm, which has developed billions of dollars in commercial and multifamily property across the state and the Southeast.
“We’ve had this long-term connection with St. Petersburg for 75 years,” Morris said of his family.
“When we came back a few years ago to visit, hearing about the opportunity to develop downtown, my wife and I came back and stayed at the Vinoy Hotel and rediscovered the new St. Petersburg.’’
Named in honor of the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia, the resort-like complex will offer a host of upscale amenities, including a rooftop pool and spa, dining rooms with distant water views and a direct access to the popular Pinellas Trail bicycle bath that runs along First Avenue South.
The décor will be punctuated with contemporary art and even Faberge eggs, those lavish, bejeweled Easter eggs made for Russian royalty.
The Hermitage will offer studios as well as 1 and 2-bedroom apartments with an average rent around $1,700; units should be available by early next summer.
St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman said the project is key to downtown’s expansion to the south and west, enlivening this section of town between the booming waterfront and Tropicana Field.
“It’s really exciting to see that happening and to know we’re going to have so many people that are going to live in a place that they can now walk and see a baseball game easily and also be within walking distance of all the great shops and restaurants and art galleries that we have here,” he said.
A block north on Central Avenue, shops, art galleries and creative institutions such as the Morean Arts Center and the Florida CraftArt gallery have helped revive this once empty part of town.
The area immediately surrounding the empty lot where The Hermitage is going up has been considerably quieter, though new upscale businesses such as Rococo Steak have ventured in over the past couple years.
A creative pioneer on this side of downtown has been the art and performance space Studio @620, which occupies a brick building one block east of The Hermitage site.
The sidewalks that were empty 11 years ago when the studio first opened now are full of walkers, cyclists and dog-walkers, and the new apartments will bring in an even bigger influx of people, says studio founder Bob Devin Jones.
“We were kind of outliers 11 years ago and the city has just kind of grown up around us,” he said.
“We’re going to have 400 new neighbors now who can walk down to us, so I’m delighted.”