St. Cloud has been trying to unload the Stevens Plantation property for over a decade, but on the eve of the final vote to approve a $6.25 million sale contract with their developer of choice, the council ended up pulling the plug on the deal.
Thursday’s meeting was supposed to be the final step in divesting of the 143 acres along Canoe Creek Road that had cost the city millions of dollars over the years to maintain. The council had voted 4-1 in December to select local developer Reed Berlinsky of Equity Investments/Gentry Land Co. to develop a mixed-use project on the Stevens Plantation land and another 51 acres of city-owned property. The city portion of the land comprised $1.75 million of the total purchase price.
An appraisal that was ordered after the deal was struck in late December tagged the value of the 51 acres at nearly $2 million.
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David Calcanis, managing director of land for Colliers International in Orlando and broker for the city, told council members he thought the appraisal was “a bit high.” Nevertheless, council members asked Berlinsky if he would match it. They also asked him to carve out 10 of the 25 buildable acres at the northeast corner of the site for a public safety complex.
Berlinsky declined, saying it wouldn’t be fair to the other developers who submitted bids for the property to renegotiate the contract at this point. “It’s more appropriate to go back out on the street and give the other bidders a chance to respond," he said. "Our bid was specific to a plan and an offer.”
Berlinsky had emerged as the top choice after multiple rounds of bids. Four of the five council members preferred his conceptual plan – which capped residential units at 555 –over a competing $6.825 million bid from Avex Homes/Avalon Park Group.
The Avex concept plan called for a higher density, including more apartments, but it also gave the city an option to sell only the Stevens Plantation property, keeping the land that was the preferred site of the city’s Public Safety Advisory Committee. Avex also offered to buy the city-owned land, construct the public safety complex and lease it back to the city.
During the public hearing, several residents gave voice to rumors that had been floating on social media pages, suggesting Mayor Nathan Blackwell had facilitated a back-room deal with Berlinsky and tried to steer the project to his firm in 2017.
One resident insinuated that Berlinsky had offered kickbacks to Blackwell or donated money to his church in exchange for the contract. Others said that selling the land at less than the appraised value equated to a $250,000 handout to the developer. Councilman Chuck Cooper echoed that statement.
“It’s almost criminal what we’re talking about doing here,” Cooper said. “This is the citizens’ money, and we’re just going to give it away to Mr. Berlinsky.”
Blackwell trembled and voice broke as he denied any improprieties. “You can go on social media and say anything, regardless of whether it’s true,” he said. “He has never made a donation to my church, that I know of. I’m not sure he’s ever even been to my church,” Blackwell said. “The reason I made my decision was because of the same concerns you all are talking about. Avex was proposing over 950 housing units on that property.”
The Equity concept plan also dedicated more land for commercial or mixed-use development, had more open space and fewer apartments. Blackwell also noted that Berlinsky offered a quick closing, which would help the city avoid paying a nearly $300,000 tax bill due in March. Finally, he pointed out that when Berlinsky submitted a bid for the same property in 2017, the council unanimously voted to go with a different developer – one who later failed to close the property.
“There were no secret deals made with Mr. Berlinsky,” Blackwell said. “Two offers were made on that property in 2017, and we gave it to Galleria.”
Blackwell also addressed audience members who opposed the development because it would add to traffic or increase demand for public services. “All you people who say you want no growth, do you remember 2008?” he asked. “That’s called no growth. It’s also called no jobs. The values of your homes went down.”
City Attorney Dan Mantzaris warned the council that canceling the contract with Equity could have expensive ramifications. The city would have to carry the costs of the Stevens Plantation property for an indefinite period of time at taxpayer expense. At some point, the bond holders could force a sale, he said.
Ultimately, the council opted to put the offering “back out on the street" this time without the public safety site.
Calcanis estimated it would take at least 90 days to advertise the new offering and receive bids. Whether Equity, Avex, or any of the other bidders are willing to go through the RFP process with this council remains to be seen.
Berlinsky did not return calls seeking comment. Avex Homes President Eric Marks said the firm has some interest.
“We spent a lot of time and effort on it before,” he told GrowthSpotter. “We still think the property has some value, but we’re evaluating whether we want to continue pursuing it.”
Have a tip about Central Florida development? Contact me at lkinsler@GrowthSpotter.com or (407) 420-6261, or tweet me at @LKinslerOGrowth. Follow GrowthSpotter on Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn.