As a kid growing up in Clearwater, Dustin DeNunzio viewed downtown as a gateway to the beach.
After launching his real estate company in 2005, he saw it as most developers have over the years – “a kind of ghost town”, where no investor wanted to make the first move. He instead took his business to St. Petersburg, Clearwater Beach and the Boston area.
But after Clearwater began the $84 million renovation of Coachman Park and the waterfront last year, DeNunzio, 45, began to see the future of downtown very differently.
He recruited friend Matthew Picket, vice president of the New York-based Gotham Organization, to form the development team behind the $400 million apartment, retail and hotel plan for two plots. of bluff bordering Coachman Park that the city council selected in July.
On Thursday, the board reached a major milestone by giving final approval to development and purchase agreements that set out the terms of the deal, including $25.5 million in incentives. On November 8, residents will vote on whether the city should sell the two stunning properties to The DeNunzio Group and Gotham Property Acquisitions for $24.7 million to make the development possible.
Katie Cole, an attorney representing DeNunzio and Gotham, called it the biggest project the city, “and frankly most of Pinellas County,” has ever seen. DeNunzio said it was also personal.
“As a developer, to do something of this scale in my backyard with my family, my nieces and my nephew who go to school here is huge for me,” DeNunzio said in an interview. “There’s a lot of pride that goes with that.”
DeNunzio and Picket met in 2016 while Picket was working at Norges Bank Real Estate Management in New York with DeNunzio’s brother.
Picket, 31, is the fifth generation of the family that ran Gotham Organization, which has developed 35,000 apartments, office buildings, hospitals, schools and shopping malls.
Two years ago, as the political climate changed in New York, Picket said, the company asked him to look for other cities to expand. He started exploring South Florida, but the pandemic stopped his tracks.
In February, DeNunzio said, he invited his friend to view real estate in St. Petersburg and Clearwater Beach. As they drove down the memorial causeway, Picket got a view of the ongoing construction at Coachman Park and the pristine patches of cliffs that surround it.
As an outsider, he said he was shocked by the divestment in downtown Clearwater given the booming neighboring towns.
At the time, Clearwater was preparing to put the bluff lots up for auction, and DeNunzio and Picket focused there. Picket said the city allowing increased density at sites made the project less risky.
“Historically, Gotham pioneered many different neighborhoods in New York City, but the key to getting a neighborhood off the ground is having critical mass and real scale,” Picket said.
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One of the city’s stated goals in selling its bluff plots is for the development to attract visitors and businesses to the empty blocks and storefronts of downtown.
The complication is that, since 2017, LLCs linked to the Church of Scientology have purchased at least 100 properties around the waterfront and about 60 in the residential area to the north. Most have remained vacant and the owners’ plans are unclear.
DeNunzio and Gotham’s proposal calls for a 158-room hotel on the former Harborview site at the corner of Osceola Avenue and Cleveland Street and 500 to 600 apartments between two towers on the former City Hall site at a half block south. Both plots will have a restaurant and retail space, while the Harborview site will also include a conference center, event space and a rooftop bar and restaurant.
DeNunzio and Picket, who are not members of Scientology, said the goal was for the bluff to trigger other activity throughout downtown. But given the unknowns of the surrounding property, they said the cliff and park together would have enough offerings to serve as a regional destination on their own.
“From our perspective, it can work as its own ecosystem, but that’s not the point,” Picket said. “The idea is that if you’re going to be a first mover in a market by making such a large investment, you hope to do a lot more and benefit from it.”