Fresco’s Waterfront Bistro, a longtime staple of downtown St. Petersburg’s waterfront and four-time winner of Tampa Bay’s best waterfront restaurant, could look much different — or disappear entirely — because of the impending redevelopment of the city’s municipal marina.
Located at 300 2nd Avenue Northeast, at the entrance of the St. Pete Pier, Fresco’s is privately operated but restaurant owner David Sockol leases the 2,600-square-foot property from the city. Sockol opened Fresco’s in 2003.
The building that Fresco’s leases is included in the scope of the marina redevelopment. Both proposals to redevelop the municipal marina include demolishing the existing Fresco’s building and replacing it with a new structure.
Fresco’s lease agreement expires in April 2024, and Sockol explains that he’s amenable to working with the chosen developer on an updated design for Fresco’s, but he told St. Pete Rising that some of the language in the city’s RFP came as a surprise.
“I knew the city wanted to redo the marina,” Sockol said. “I did not know that they’re planning on letting whoever bid on the marina submit a proposal for a new design and plan for Fresco’s. I found that out when an article came out saying the RFP has been released.”
According to the RFP, “The physical condition of the restaurant is such that a complete replacement is envisioned (including seawalls, restaurant building, and exterior seating areas). The ability to reimagine this location is desired.”
Sockol said he’s invested a significant amount of capital in improvements to Fresco’s since taking over the property — which had been known as Apropos, a restaurant that served New American cuisine — including the addition of a large awning and deck overlooking the water.
Fresco’s has maintained its popularity during downtown St. Pete’s renaissance and now claims the status of being the longest continually operated restaurant along the Beach Drive corridor.
Its location at the doorstep of the new St. Pete Pier has made the establishment, which employs about 100 people, busier than ever.
“When I bought it, the outdoor deck wasn’t even there,” Sockol said. “It took me about a year to obtain permits to build the deck and another year to build the awning.”
Sockol said he has a plan to demolish Fresco’s if needed and rebuild it to suit the marina’s refreshed look and feel; he’s even hired architects and set aside funds to execute the process.
But he’s concerned that it will all be for naught if his lease is not renewed.
Both Safe Harbor and Suntex have expressed interest in keeping Fresco’s as a tenant, but there has been no formal commitment from either group. However, Safe Harbor went so far as to include drawings by Sockol’s architecture team in its RFP submission.
“I gave my input on what I wanted,” Sockol said of his interaction with the Wannemacher Jensen team. “Then the architects submitted the drawings to Safe Harbor.”
In their response, Safe Harbor noted that, “Fresco’s is a long-standing pillar of the St. Petersburg community, and our preference would be to work with the current operator of Fresco’s for the design, construction and sublease of a new restaurant facility, but we are committed to ultimately partnering with a local high-quality restauranteur to ensure that a first-class dining experience is created for all marina and downtown St. Petersburg visitors for years to come.”
Sockol’s renderings, which were included in the Safe Harbor proposal, were created by St. Pete-based Wannemacher Jensen Architects Inc. and clearly show the name “Fresco’s” on the side of a two-story building overlooking the marina. The images also depict the new Fresco’s at or near its original location.
Suntex also included renderings in its RFP response of a new two-story building along the waterfront that could potentially house a restaurant, but the images don’t contain any references to Fresco’s.
In their proposal, Suntex stated that, “Subject to agreeable economic terms and any required consents, Suntex anticipates that Fresco’s will lease and operate the premise. If terms cannot be reached, then Suntex will internally operate the restaurant or lease the space to a third-party.”
Sockol added that he and the architecture firm agreed that the new Fresco’s should be moved farther south along the seawall so that the restaurant’s original location could remain open during construction.
“So,” he said, “instead of 100 people losing their jobs, they’re able to stay employed. That’s our goal, but ultimately, it will be the city’s decision.”
As for the next steps, Mayor Ken Welch and city staff are expected to review the two redevelopment plans and will prepare a strengths and weaknesses report. Mayor Welch has the sole authority in selecting the developer. Once a developer is selected, an agreement will be drawn and submitted to City Council for approval.