As North Ward school goes on the market, city considers its historic status

The North Ward Secondary School building is for sale, but preservationists now appeal to the city.
North Ward Secondary School sits vacant at 327 11th Ave. N, just off Fourth Street. It closed in 2008. LARA CERRI   |   Times
North Ward Secondary School sits vacant at 327 11th Ave. N, just off Fourth Street. It closed in 2008.LARA CERRI | Times
Published March 28 2014
Updated March 28 2014

ST. PETERSBURG — A preservation group's push to get North Ward Secondary School designated as a landmark is colliding with plans by Pinellas school officials to sell the long-vacant building.

The issue is expected to go before the City Council in April.

Set back from the bustling corridor of Fourth Street N, the two mission-style buildings facing 11th Avenue are surrounded by a chain link fence. North Ward opened a century ago as an elementary school on what then was the edge of town and later became an alternative school, North Ward Secondary.

The Pinellas County School District, citing the facility's poor condition, closed it in 2008. The school has remained vacant since.

In December, after learning the district intended to sell the property, St. Petersburg Preservation Inc. and the Historic Old Northeast Neighborhood Association jointly filed an application for historic designation. The 1-acre lot went on the market for $2.5 million in November, but the price soon dropped to $1.75 million.

"From our perspective, it's something that needed to be sold," said Michael Bessette, Pinellas schools' associate superintendent for operational services.

The district won a postponement from the city in February. But the preservation and neighborhood groups celebrated a small victory earlier this month when the city's Community Planning and Preservation Commission recommended to the City Council that the school receive historic designation. The council will have the final say when it meets April 17.

The district contends the designation would make it difficult for a new owner to renovate or demolish the buildings, limiting its ability to sell the property. Any modification would require approval from the commission.

So far, the district has received three offers, including one that would turn the school into doctors' offices, but those have fallen through.

North Ward could be converted into uses such as a private school, a museum, a string of gift shops or a law firm, said neighborhood association president Peter Motzenbecker.

"We think it's one of the last-standing historical structures on Fourth Street," he said, "and to lose it, it would affect the overall charm of the neighborhood." The property is zoned for commercial use.

Even if North Ward is designated as a landmark, the school district still will try to sell the property, Bessette said.

Though school officials are trying to get top dollar, St. Petersburg Preservation vice president Peter Belmont said they should keep in mind that historic designation has its perks: The new owner could receive tax incentives for reusing historic property.

"The School Board basically wants as much money as possible and they don't care about what happens to the building or thereafter," he said. "And that's disappointing to me."

Colleen Wright can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8913. Follow @Colleen_Wright on Twitter.