ST. PETERSBURG — The historic former First Baptist Church slated for demolition may now get a reprieve.
St. Peter's Episcopal Cathedral, which owns the property, says the building is back on the market.
WRH Princess Martha LLC, which signed an agreement a month ago to buy the former church for $1.1-million, says it's still interested in the property but is seeking concessions as it continues to negotiate.
"We haven't asked for a price reduction and we've not asked (St. Peter's) to share in the costs, but we want to make (a demolition permit) a condition of closing,'' said Mark Rutledge, president of WRH Income Properties Inc.
"We can't proceed with the purchase of the property without being able to have the authorization to demolish it."
Over the years, plans to demolish the historic building have presented a major hurdle for St. Peter's and prospective buyers of the property. Preservationists say the old church across the street from Williams Park is a unique example of neoclassical architecture. In past weeks, they have rallied to save the building, meeting with the prospective buyers and seeking political and other help for their cause.
Now they're breathing a little easier.
"One of the things that St. Petersburg Preservation was asking for was time to explore all alternatives to the demolition of the building,'' said Will Michaels, president of the organization.
"If the sale is not going to occur, it does give the city and those interested in historic preservation an opportunity to come together and develop a plan … that would be beneficial to all.''
WRH Princess Martha LLC, which owns the Princess Martha Hotel next door to the closed Baptist church, said it needs to raze the building for future expansion. Given the present economic climate, though, the company said it planned to temporarily replace the building with green space for residents of the 119-unit independent living facility.
William R. Hough, a well-known businessman and philanthropist who has a long association with St. Peter's, has said that buying the former Baptist church is key to the senior facility's continued viability.
Hough is an investor with WRH Income Properties Inc.
This is not the first time preservationists have opposed attempts to demolish the former Baptist church at 120 Fourth St. N. Built in 1924, the same year as the Princess Martha, the church was named a local historic landmark in 1994. The Princess Martha was given the same distinction the following year.
For St. Peter's, the Baptist property has been an albatross since its purchase in 1990. That was the year the Baptist congregation moved to new facilities on Gandy Boulevard. St. Peter's bought the adjacent property, which included the closed church and its five-story education building, for $1-million. The old church since has been largely unused.
"The thing is, we've had it listed now for 10 months and literally over 100 organizations and individuals have been through the building and nobody has come up with a viable solution to retaining the property without also using St. Peter's property and the Princess Martha's property,'' said Sheree Graves, St. Peter's senior warden.
The Princess Martha entity would be ideal buyers because they're next door, she said. "We actually had another contract when this came in January. We chose not to act on it because this offer came in and looked like there would be less caveats. As it is, there may be more strings in this one,'' Graves said.
She said St. Peter's will go ahead with its $10-million expansion and redevelopment plans, which are expected to be completed about 14 to 18 months after construction begins in May.
"It would have been nice to have it off our plate and use our money in another way,'' she said.
"This doesn't change our time line. This means we keep worrying about the Baptist sanctuary.''
Waveney Ann Moore can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2283.