March 16--TAMPA -- A longtime Tampa landowner has sold a huge chunk of property across from University Mall, best described as fast-food row, to a Miami investment group for $13.4 million.
A representative of the new owner, an entity called Orion Venture VI, said it won't make any immediate changes but might redevelop some of the property in the long run. The company doesn't yet know what that redevelopment might entail, said Orion Senior Vice President Norman Buhrmaster.
"We're kind of evaluating all that," he said.
However, a prominent real estate broker not involved in the land sale speculated that Orion might build apartments on at least a portion of it.
The rental industry is red-hot right now, Patrick Berman of the Cushman & Wakefield real estate firm said, and apartments might be the best use of that land because of its proximity to the University of South Florida.
The land in question starts at North 15th Street west of University Mall and stops at the Sonic Drive-In at 1915 E. Fowler Ave. The property is hard to miss because of its impressive lineup of fast-food restaurants, including Dunkin' Donuts, Wendy's, Checkers, Taco Bell and Long John Silver's, as well as a plaza that contains Bulls Outfitter.
Less visible is a row of beige brick storefronts, warehouses and auto repair shops that sit behind the fast-food restaurants. The property encompasses about 18 acres, county land records show.
It had been held for at least 25 years by Tampa banker and philanthropist Ted Couch, who helped found H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center and Research Institute, among other community causes.
His son, T.J. Couch, said the property originally was in much larger parcels than the patchwork of free-standing restaurants evident today. However, he soon discovered that early tenants, such as Wendy's, didn't need much land. So, he divided it into smaller tracts with frontage along Fowler and other warehouse space in the rear.
Most of the fast-food restaurants own their buildings and lease land from Couch. He admits the area looks cluttered and less-than-appealing because the restaurant and oil-change signs that dot the highway were grandfathered in.
"But to change it now, the existing tenants would go bonkers," Couch said.
His father decided to put the property on the market several months ago.
"He's tired of having to worry about this," said the younger Couch, who had managed the property. "He's ready to put his feet up."
County land records show Couch's business entity, University Commercial Center, sold the property to Orion Venture VI on Dec. 20 for $13.4 million. State corporation records show that Orion is affiliated with Miami real estate investor Joseph Sanz and his company, Orion Investment and Management Ltd.
Orion's website shows it has real estate investments worth about $250 million. Calls to Ross Realty Group of Clearwater, which is managing the property for Orion, went unreturned this week.
At least two tenants, Bulls Outfitter and the repair shop Auto Pro, said they've signed new 5-year leases and are optimistic they won't be asked to leave.
However, Bulls Outfitter owner Craig Brunstein said you worry whenever an outside investor replaces a local owner.
"Can't ask for a nicer owner," Brunstein said of Couch. "He and his family were very invested in USF."