ST. PETERSBURG — Cesar Morales and his wife, Danni, stumbled across their charming Lang Court home on Craigslist.
To them, they struck gold.
After traveling for 18 months, they rented in a cluster of century-old bungalows tucked between Calla Terrace and Fourth Avenue N, just south of Interstate 375.
From Fourth Avenue, it's hard to spot the site where St. Petersburg's former mayor, Al Lang, bought plots of land to mimic the popular bungalow courts of California. Just a small sign atop the iron entryway, "Historic Lang's Bungalow Court, Est. 1915," and an encompassing white concrete wall mark the only bungalow court in the city.
In this tight-knit community, children play on front porches. The neighbors, half of whom are renters, rally together for block parties. The Morales' cocker-poodle Scooby-Doo romps between the neighbors' yards. Its residents consider Lang's Bungalow Court a hidden gem.
"Within the first couple of days, we felt like we were home," said Morales, 37.
From the Morales' front lawn across the iconic hexagonal brick pathway stands a vacant brick house built in 1928. The St. Petersburg Free Clinic, a nonprofit community service agency that neighbors Lang Court to the south, bought that property in January with hopes of clearing it to meet the city's parking space requirements for a new women's shelter down the street.
As of Tuesday, the house is safe from demolition and will be on sale with hopes of someone restoring it, said the clinic's executive director, Beth Houghton. But its newer garage apartment behind the house will be torn down to make space for up to five cars.
Morales, along with the other residents of Lang's Bungalow Court, fear that another parking lot on the block will only contribute to the demise of the neighborhood, which is on the rebound since the recession.
In an effort to block further demolition, residents of Lang Court turned to St. Petersburg Preservation, a nonprofit group to preserve old St. Petersburg. It filed an application last month to designate Lang Court and its 11 bungalow homes as historic.
The group's vice president, Peter Belmont, agreed bulldozing just the backyard garage apartment was better than taking the house, but said the neighborhood still faces demolition on the other side of the block, where the clinic has a contract to buy the property at 335 Lang Court, also for parking.
"I think the solution that has been reached is a better solution for the Free Clinic and it's obviously a better solution for the neighborhood," he said. "But we still have the problem on the other side of Lang Court."
A hearing with the city's community planning and preservation committee is set for April 8. Their recommendation, however, is advisory to the City Council, which will make the final decision.
"It's a small historic neighborhood," Belmont said. "It can't afford to have pieces of it chipped away, particularly where there seems to be alternatives."
Philip Lazzara, a city zoning official, explained that even after the clinic recently bought one of the Lang Court lots at the southwestern end of the block to meet the parking requirement, the clinic still would've been short of the spaces required.
Even if the lot is deemed historic, the clinic may be able to bulldoze the garage apartment with approval from the community planning and preservation committee, Lazzara said.
A parking variance hearing is planned April 2.
Morales said the clinic's existing parking lot, facing Calla Terrace N, attracts blight to the neighborhood. Many, he said, leave trash and defecate between parked trailers.
Morales said another parking lot means "inviting more activity like that."
"We just want them to make good land-use decisions that enhances the community as a whole," he said.
But Houghton said the clinic is trying to comply with city ordinance.
"In my observation, parking is adequate," she said. "But other volunteers say they can't find parking space."
Colleen Wright can be reached at [email protected]