Wrecking ball plan for Central Avenue block in St. Petersburg draws ire from preservationists

Preservationists want to save two buildings on Central Avenue.

Published February 18 2016
Updated February 18 2016

ST. PETERSBURG — The owners of a historic downtown block may be on the verge of getting permission to raze its vacant buildings as they prepare to sell what will be prime real estate.

But those who want to save the block's two historic structures, including one that dates back to an early St. Petersburg mayor, are upset.

"We are very disappointed in the process the city has followed," said Peter Belmont, vice president of St. Petersburg Preservation, a group that works to save historic sites and structures and retain what's unique about the city. "It seems like it has been done in the dark, without public hearing."

The block in contention stretches from Central Avenue to First Avenue S, and Fourth Street to Fifth Street S. It's where the 11-story Pheil Hotel and Theater began its construction in 1916 and the Central National Bank in 1911.

The St. Petersburg Downtown Neighborhood Association is supporting the proposed demolition. In a letter to the city, its president, Albert Scafati, said board members decided to support the demolition after much discussion.

"The ultimate disposition of a key downtown property is of great concern to us and our residents," he wrote.

The block has been tied up in a 99-year ground lease between descendants of Abram C. Pheil, the city's mayor in 1912, and First States Investors, a real estate investment trust. Now the property is up for sale and drawing strong interest, said Mark Stroud, the listing agent.

There is no asking price, he said, adding that the listing is based on the property being vacant.

"We are not going to discourage buyers who want to keep the buildings, but we will not be willing to discount the price in the event the buildings stay," he said. "So far, everyone who has called who has an interest in keeping the buildings has asked for a discount."

Stroud said no one wants the buildings to be designated historic.

"That would essentially kill any future development on the site for the foreseeable future," he said.

In a press release, St. Petersburg Preservation president Emily Elwyn said her group is not against development.

"Rather our goal is to work with developers to find profitable ways to use historic buildings and blend new construction into our urban fabric," she said. "The city is being short sighted in rushing to issue a demolition permit for these buildings before a plan for the redevelopment of the block has been approved."

City staff say they are following a well laid out process. Elizabeth Abernethy, zoning official with development review services, said city code stipulates that a demolition application cannot be approved in the downtown district without an approved site plan and a complete building permit application. Under those rules, the sellers' initial request for a demolition permit was denied, she said. The owners later completed another application citing several criteria that would allow an exemption, among them that preservation "substantially interferes with the use of the property."

"We intend to approve it if no appeal is filed," Abernethy said, adding that the deadline for filing an appeal is noon Monday.

Belmont said St. Petersburg Preservation will file an appeal.

An appeal will go before the Development Review Commission. Its decision can be appealed in Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Court.

Belmont said preservation of the city's historical buildings is compatible with redevelopment, as evidenced by the 600 block of Central Avenue, which had been slated to be demolished for condominiums.

"Clearly, old buildings can be reused. It's economically viable to do so," he said.

In a letter to the city, Don Mastry, the lawyer representing the property owners, cited several assessments disputing that for the Pheil property.

"Each opinion concludes that the use of the property in its present condition is economically unfeasible and that demolition of the structures is the only practical option for the property," Mastry wrote.

The Pheil Hotel and Theater and the old bank are among dozens of St. Petersburg buildings listed as potentially eligible for historic designation and so benefit from certain protections, said Derek Kilborn, manager of the city's urban planning and historic preservation division.

Those who oppose demolition can submit what is referred to as a third-party application asking that the structure receive historic designation.

"If somebody submits a third party application, the demolition request will go on hold and the city will process that application," Kilborn said.

That would be reviewed by the Community Planning and Preservation Commission, which will send a recommendation to the City Council.

For now, the historic Central Avenue block could take on new life as a mixed-use project, with multifamily units and retail. Stroud, the agent, says he's also heard suggestions of a hotel and parking garage.

Contact Waveney Ann Moore at wmoore@tampabay.com or (727) 892-2283. Follow @wmooretimes