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An exercise in survival: YMCA building deserves another chance

Curiosity brought more than 600 people to the old YMCA in downtown St. Petersburg for an open house last weekend.

JAMES BORCHUCK | Times

Curiosity brought more than 600 people to the old YMCA in downtown St. Petersburg for an open house last weekend.

The holidays may have arrived early for the folks trying to save the old St. Petersburg YMCA.

First, the city's staff hinted that the owner's application for demolition would likely be denied. Then the owner requested more time, so the decision was postponed until Dec. 14. But by then, it may be a moot point.

That's because "a white knight" (Santa) arrived with a $20,000 payment that keeps a contract to buy the building alive.

Up until that point, St. Petersburg Preservation, the arts community and a host of residents pushed back against plans to demolish the building.

In recent weeks, residents in the Sunshine City have rallied to save the 85-year-old landmark at 116 Fifth St. S that has been shuttered since 2001.

Built in 1926, the 51,000-square-foot Mediterranean Revival building drew more than 600 people last weekend during an open house organized by St. Petersburg Preservation and two other groups trying to save the building from a date with a wrecking ball.

This isn't the first time a historic site has been saved. The area's pink bookends — the Vinoy along the waterfront and the Don CeSar on St. Pete Beach — faced similar fates, but residents rallied to save both structures.

In recent years, the 600 block of Central Avenue, including the beautiful Crislip Arcade, was scheduled to be razed.

During the downtown condo boom a few years ago, it was slated to become home to a 15-story mixed-use project with 108 units. But the economic downturn put those plans on hold and the project — the Residences at 601 Central — never got off the ground.

Today, the place is teeming with craft galleries, boutiques, art shops and a recording studio.

Here's why saving the building makes sense: The city should make every effort to refrain from tearing down its historic landmarks for the sake of temporary progress.

Both Wachovia (now Wells Fargo) and Bank of America abandoned larger downtown structures for smaller locations.

Have you patronized any of the businesses in the reinvented McNulty Station — the city's former firehouse? The patrons of Red Mesa Cantina and Cafe Alma seem to enjoy dining in a relic. Character matters.

And unlike the Pier, the YMCA structure isn't slowly crumbling into Tampa Bay.

Residents here are chomping at the bit for more development, but I would bet that banks aren't on the top of the list.

Did you hear the buzz when Bill Edwards purchased BayWalk or when there was talk of a Whole Foods looking at property adjacent to the Synovus Bank building at 333 Third Ave. N?

Truth be told, one of the last things downtown needs is another bank building. And if folks are still looking, there's one vacancy that comes to mind: the former First Union/Wachovia site that takes up the entire southern portion of the 400 block of Central Avenue.

Sandra J. Gadsden can be reached at sgadsden@tampabay.com or at (727) 893-8874 or on Twitter at @StPeteSandi.

An exercise in survival: YMCA building deserves another chance 11/17/12 [Last modified: Saturday, November 17, 2012 3:31am]

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