Ron Zawistowski in the parking garage behind Cigar Paradise Royal Lounge, with the 150-foot smoke duct above. Photo: Eric Snider

Designing Downtown: Ron Z is making his mark on St. Pete's small-business sphere

Over a couple of decades, Ron Zawistowski has quietly put his imprint on downtown St. Petersburg.

His boutique architecture firm, Innovative Design Studios, has no major high-rises or large buildings to its credit, but Zawistowski’s work can be seen up, down and around Central Avenue in restaurants, bars, stores and barbershops. Most of the projects have been renovations, additions and build-outs of old structures, updating them to strict city code requirements.

“I like doing bars and restaurants because there’s more design freedom,” he says. “I design storage buildings all over the state, but I’m not going to drive to Stuart, Florida to see my storage building there. I can walk into a bar and see the finished product, have a drink, talk to the owner.”

(Editor’s Note: Read about WheelBase Garage Condos, a complex he worked on in Lakewood Ranch.)

Zawistowski’s downtown St. Pete work includes both locations of the (swah-ray) dessert bar; the recently opened Toss Salads & Wraps; Salad Chop, opening soon in the Snell Arcade; Pizza Box; Courigan’s Irish Pub; the Shave Cave barbershop in Sundial; the soon-to-open Machine Shop Barber Company in the Edge District; and Three Dog Barkery, which sells extravagant doggie treats. All of these, and others, are small independent businesses that have defined St. Pete’s revitalized downtown.

Zawistowski’s newest project is among his most high-profile so far. Cigar Paradise Royal Lounge is a cigar bar and retail shop in the old Chihuly Collection space on Beach Drive. Among his many architectural challenges, one stood out: designing an HVAC system that would render the establishment as smoke-free as possible — or, to put it more specifically, so customers can leave without smelling like cigar smoke.

“To make it so you can smoke cigars inside was a major feat of engineering,” Zawistowski says.

Ron Z views the Cigar Paradise project in progress. Photo: Eric Snider

Indeed. The original air conditioning system was replaced with a new one that cost $185,000. Zawistowski says it’s “the size of a car” and pushes twice as much fresh air into the room. Exhaust fans and smoke-eaters have been strategically placed throughout. Much of the smoke sucked from the space will be deposited about 150 feet away. A silver duct, two feet in diameter, starts at the back of the cigar bar, runs along the roof of a condo parking garage and ends at a vent on Bay Street.

Cigar Paradise Royal Lounge will feature a luxurious interior with a neutral color palette and ample lighting — the antithesis of the dark, men’s-club smokeries of yore. A full liquor bar will provide craft cocktails, wine and beer. A large humidor occupies one area. A torcedor will roll cigars by hand on site. The place will also offer ample outdoor seating. The owners, Cuban natives Marcos and Yatie Diaz, said in mid-August that they planned to open later this fall.

Zawistowski, a young-looking 53 with an easy-going mien, lives in the Tyrone area of St. Petersburg with his wife Lisa, son Jason, 22, and dog Charlie. They also have a daughter, Alexa, 25, who lives in the Old Northeast. Zawistowski grew up in Erie, Pennsylvania and earned his five-year architecture degree from Kent State University in Ohio. Jobs were scarce in the area, so Zawistowski poked around and got a few offers in Tampa Bay. In 1993, he packed up his Ford Tempo and moved here. Lisa joined him a year later after completing grad school. His first job was with (now-defunct) Philipi & Associates.

Zawistowski hung his out own shingle in 2000, working in a small office in the Jannus Landing complex. At the time, he was busy designing the makeover of the old Hotel Detroit — which adjoins the concert courtyard — into condominiums. “The space was vacant and had last been a youth hostel,” Zawistowski recalls of the hotel that opened in 1890. “It was destroyed. It had four-foot bathtubs. It had one wood and two brick sections, so we had to completely gut it and basically patch together three buildings.”

Around that time, Zawistowski was the architect for Pop City, a 35,000-sq-ft bar/restaurant/nightclub that was the first tenant in Tampa’s Channelside development. Pop City opened in 2001, just in time for Super Bowl XXXVII, but closed within a year.

Zawistowski has rented several small office spaces in St. Pete over the years. In May, he closed the one on 22nd Avenue North near Mazzaro’s, and moved operations into his home, where Lisa also works as a motivational author and life coach. The couple has been married 26 years and finds working and living in the same space no problem at all.

Zawistowski once employed intern architects, but dropped that idea some time ago. “I’ve never wanted to build a large firm, to have a large office managing a bunch of people,” he says. “I like coming up with the designs and working through projects with clients. Instead of reviewing someone else’s drawings, and hope they’re right, I’d rather just do my own.”

The above story is in the Fall 2020 issue of duPont Registry Tampa Bay. If you’re not among the lucky few who already have it on your coffee table, here’s a link to the digital edition.

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