ST. PETERSBURG — No other downtown building comes close to matching the Detroit Hotel's historical bona fides.
City's oldest building? Check. Built by the city's founders? Yep. Playground of yesteryear's glitterati, including Eleanor Roosevelt, Will Rogers and Babe Ruth? Got it.
But what the Queen Anne Victorian-style building at 215 Central Ave. doesn't have, to the chagrin of many, is an actual historic status that protects it from future demolition or overhaul.
Preservationists hope that will change today with a vote by the City Council to approve designating the hotel, built in 1888, a local historical landmark.
"If this doesn't qualify as a historic structure, then we should be allowed to tear down any building we want to," said Mayor Bill Foster. "For the love of Pete, it's the Detroit."
There's just one problem. The actual owners of the building don't want the designation. The building went condo in 2002, and all of the owners say the historic status would infringe upon their ownership rights. The building sits on land that's zoned for a 380-foot-tall building that could never get built if the Detroit is preserved.
"It's a four-story building now," said Tony Amico, who owns about a third of it. "You could build a 38-story building there. That's a lot of floors the developer could sell people. I don't disagree that the building has historical significance, but somebody has to compensate us for it."
So far, the city plans no such reimbursement. If the City Council approves the status, then the owners of the building's 24 residential units and five commercial units would benefit from existing tax breaks and credits, said Will Michaels, the former president of St. Petersburg Preservation, the group that applied last year for the designation. City code allows people to seek historic status of buildings, even if they don't own them.
Michaels said historic properties typically appreciate in value. He also said the city compensates owners of historic buildings by awarding them "development credits." These credits can then be sold to developers wishing to build larger projects than zoning would allow.
"It's puzzling," Michaels said. "Some of the condo owners probably don't fully appreciate or understand all the incentives that are available."
But Amico said the credits are worthless because, aside from the recession, there's no market for them. He said that's because the city also lets developers build larger projects if they contribute to affordable housing or parks.
"The city's not going to push a developer to buy development credits if they can instead get the developer to contribute money to the city," Amico said. "In these times, the city is starving for cash, so it's going to take the money. Always."
As for the appreciating values, that seems the stuff of fantasy to those who own there now, said Adam Nibert, president of the Detroit's condo association.
A consultant with Raymond James Financial, Nibert bought his condo on the third floor in 2002. Its value, along with everything else, has plummeted in the last couple of years. The last thing he needs now, he said, is to be saddled with a preservation status that could impede him selling or remodeling it.
"I've put a lot of money into this place," he said. "For the city to come and ram this down our throats is pretty ridiculous. I care more about this building than anybody, but what the city is trying to do is restrict my property rights. They should come back when they have something to offer us."
Michael Van Sickler can be reached at (727) 893-8037 or email@example.com.