Historic school building gets new life in St. Pete

- It sat vacant for eight years, but now a developer is breathing new life into St. Petersburg's North Ward Elementary School.

The century-old school house at one point appeared destined for demolition, until a New-York-City-native- turned-St.-Pete-neighbor bought the property to turn it into what he's calling a local urban mall.

Jonathan Daou, president of Eastman Equity, has transformed numerous retail spaces in New York's SoHo district. His love for re-imagining historic buildings made North Ward an irresistible project.

"This is the perfect case of, they don't build them like they used to," Daou said, while beaming over the former school's original pine wood floors.

He admitted he is not a true preservationist, but Daou intends to keep as much of North Ward's original charm intact as possible. For several classrooms turned retail spaces, that means chalkboards, cubbies, pencil sharpeners and 100-year-old hardwood floors will be included in the rent.

PHOTOS: Tour inside the school

"Something that has been a school for 100 years, and is still standing today, and is going to get re-used, is going to have a certain impact in today's market that I think is more valuable than just tearing this down and putting up something that looks exactly like everything else," said Daou.

He hopes his unique shopping mall will become a home and a haven for local small businesses, many of which struggle to afford space in St. Pete's popular 4th Street district.

"St. Pete is a very local city and the people are very supportive of small businesses. One of the sad things is that, as St. Pete becomes more popular and more successful, Main Street is sort of pushing out small businesses in favor of those with better credit rating, simply because a bank is more likely to finance a bigger tenant with deeper pockets," said Daou. "One of my causes in developing real estate is to prove the opposite true: You can have a more solid, financially secure concept with multiple small businesses that are all working passionately to succeed and be able to get them onto Main Street."

Daou, who hopes to have his new North Ward mall open in the fall, said he still has space available for new tenants, but is filling up quickly. The mall's eclectic mix of stores includes Mexican restaurant Costa Vida, a yoga studio, fitness club and organic children's store.

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