ST. PETERSBURG — The 6,500 pound wrecking ball looked smaller than expected, and the first swing of the ball came 44 minutes behind schedule.
But as the ball finally slammed into the southwest corner of the historic Pheil hotel and a piece of aluminum grillwork came crashing down, a collective "ahh'' emerged from spectators lined this morning along on First Avenue South.
"This is so people feel like they got their money's worth,'' said David Snyder as the ball knocked off larger sections of grillwork, gradually exposing the building's original windows and brick facade.
Snyder is former chief financial officer and now a consultant to First States, a real estate investment trust that owns part of the 400 block of Central Avenue and is spending about $2 million to demolish the hotel and other buildings on the site. First States also is paying the Pheil family, which owns the other part of the block, $10 million to get out of long-term land leases that had thwarted plans to redevelop the property.
Once the demolition is finished later this year, the Pheils are expected to close on their sale of the 2.2 acre site to New York's Red Appple Group, which has tentative plans to build a mixed-used tower and possibly a hotel.
The swing of the wrecking ball was "a culmination of a long difficult process for a lot of people including the city,'' said Michael Dema, an assistant city attorney who was involved in the negotiations between the Pheils and First States. "I think we're all looking forward to moving on.''
Built in the 1920s by an early mayor of St. Petersburg, the hotel has long been known as the "cheese grater'' because of the grillwork added in the '60s. As demolition began this summer on other structures on the site, city staffers found old photos showing what appeared to be a stone sign engraved with the words PHEIL HOTEL beneath the grillwork.
Hopes of removing the sign and perhaps displaying it in the city's history museum, were recently dashed when the sign, which turned out to be plaster, not stone, crumbled during attempts to remove it.
Contact Susan Taylor Martin at [email protected] or (727) 893-8642. Follow @susanskate