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The Detroit Hotel is as old as the growing city around it, a landmark tribute to a time of sweeping verandas, citrus groves and sandy streets.

But despite repeated attempts by preservationists, St. Petersburg's oldest hotel has yet to be designated a historic landmark. Like dozens of other unprotected historic properties around the city, little more than good intentions protect the structure from development.

As downtown's ongoing rebirth unfolds, preservationists argue that St. Petersburg is at a defining crossroads where nothing less than the city's identity is at stake. The recent redevelopment boom that brought new jobs, liveliness and a skyline dotted with construction cranes has also made some of the city's most beloved architectural treasures vulnerable to the wrecking ball.

"What so many people like about downtown St. Petersburg is that small-town feel, the wooden buildings, the Mediterranean revival structures," said Kai Warren, a history buff who gives tours of downtown's historic sites. "If we were to lose all that, we would be a completely different city."

St. Petersburg has struggled for decades to cast off its reputation as a haven for the elderly while maintaining some sense of history.

That ongoing battle reached a boiling point under Mayor Rick Baker, who has pushed to revitalize downtown, encouraging new hotel and condominium projects that sometimes jeopardized historic buildings.

Baker, who wrote a book on the history of St. Petersburg, said he is equally committed to historic preservation. St. Petersburg, he said, must protect its history as it moves forward.

"Historic buildings add to the character of the city. It lends to the uniqueness of the city," he said. "You have to find a balance. You don't want to look like every other city."

Baker successfully rallied to save most of the historic First Baptist Church overlooking Williams Park and to reopen Sunken Gardens, a longtime attraction near downtown.

Preservation has also been a significant part of Baker's policies in Midtown: He has advocated for the restoration of the historic Manhattan Casino, Mercy Hospital, Royal Theater and Jordan Park School.

He has promoted incentives such as density credits to help persuade developers to preserve historic properties.

After the historic Colonial Hotel was demolished to make way for the Ovation condominium in 2006, Baker held a summit to define the city's preservation goals.

An ambitious plan was unveiled. The city would nominate three properties for landmark designation each year. The City Council would hold annual preservation workshops to monitor the progress of the city's preservation commission. The city would host another workshop to identify ways to minimize conflicts between historic preservation and downtown redevelopment.

Nearly three years later, most of the policies have yet to be enacted.

"They are doing the talk, but not walking the walk," Warren said.

City officials said budget cuts and the ongoing revision of the city's land development regulations put them behind schedule but haven't hampered their commitment to preservation.

"You need to preserve enough buildings so you retain the flavor of what makes St. Petersburg a special place," said council member Karl Nurse. "No one today would suggest that new condos would be better than the Vinoy."

Preservation can be a powerful economic engine.

It creates tourism and construction jobs, encourages the appreciation of property values, and pumps additional property tax revenue into local government coffers, according to a 2003 state report that found that preservation activity makes up $4-billion of Florida's annual economy.

Owners of historic properties also qualify for tax breaks. A renovation increasing the building value of a property by $10,000 would save the property owner $1,400 in taxes over a decade.

But these incentives mean little when a developer can turn a small, rundown historic home into a lucrative upscale hotel.

Developer Dan Harvey has been trying to get permission to convert three historic downtown homes into hotel or condo projects. Two of the homes — the Bay Gables and the Henry-Bryan — are designated landmarks. Harvey said he plans to move the Henry-Bryan to the Old Northeast, but the Bay Gables is too rundown to save.

"I know how important preservation is to the city, but somewhere along the way you have to have some pragmatism," he said. "The economic viability of the houses nowhere substantiates the expense of the land.

"The hotel,'' he said, "will be a really good economic driver."

Cristina Silva can be reached at (727) 893-8846 or

Saved properties

Flori-de-Leon Apartments: It was designated a local landmark in 1994. Lou Gehrig and Babe Ruth stayed here for spring training in the 1930s.

Veillard House: Designed by Henry Dupont of Don CeSar resort fame, this Queen Anne-style house is celebrated for its stained-glass windows.

Open Air Post Office: Modeled after a famous Italian orphanage, the Mediterranean Revival structure was dedicated in 1916.

Endangered properties

The Detroit Hotel: Built in 1888, the recently converted Central Avenue condominium complex is one of the oldest buildings in the city, but it hasn't been designated a local landmark.

Bay Gables house: This former boarding home was designated a local landmark in 1994. Plans call for razing it to build a hotel.

Garden Cafeteria: A cornerstone of St. Petersburg's once bustling cafeteria culture, this 1935 haven will be razed to make way for a 19-story high-rise.

Lost properties

The Soreno Hotel: Efforts to landmark what was known as the city's first million-dollar hotel were rejected twice. The waterfront hotel was demolished in 1992 to make way for condominiums.

The Colonial Hotel: Built in 1917 to look like a Southern plantation, the city's first steel-frame building was demolished in 2006 to make way for condos.

The Million Dollar Pier: This 1926 Mediterranean Revival structure was demolished in 1967 and replaced by today's upside-down pyramid design.

PRESERVATION STAGNATION 11/01/08 [Last modified: Monday, November 3, 2008 7:07pm]
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