Daniel Ruth: When preservationists become obstructionists

Published April 21 2016
Updated April 21 2016

Just because you're well-intentioned, deeply committed and more altruistic than Florence Nightingale doesn't mean you're right.

St. Petersburg Preservation is a fine, admirable group of citizens who have dedicated themselves to protecting the city's rich architectural legacy. Very nice. Thanks a bunch. And now, please, please go away.

In recent days St. Petersburg Preservation has filed a lawsuit in Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Court to overturn a city decision to permit the owners — accent on the word: owners — to demolish the early 20th century Pheil Hotel and Theater and Central National Bank buildings that sit on a block bordered by Central Avenue, First Avenue S and Fourth and Fifth Streets.

The property is also often referred to as the Cheese Grater Building. Or think of the edifice as an example of classic Potemkin Village design. Built between 1911 and 1916, the buildings have been vacant for years and home only to vagrants and vermin. As for its historic value, it is remotely possible perhaps a tipsy Babe Ruth cast a glance in the general direction of the Pheil Hotel and Theater once upon a time.

Now Pheil family descendants have an opportunity to sell the property, as long as they can first raze the vacant structures to make room for something other than a desolate, barren space in the middle of the city. The city's Development Review Commission approved the demolition plans, and then St. Petersburg Preservation butted into a private real estate deal.

Peter Belmont, the vice president of St. Petersburg Preservation, told the Tampa Bay Times' Waveney Ann Moore that his group opposed the demolition of the Pheil Hotel complex, claiming he was aware of other developers who want to renovate the property.

Alas, there have been ample opportunities over the years for developers to come forward with some grand vision to turn the Pheil Hotel and Theater land into Camelot. But nothing happened. And it is certainly true if Belmont and his preservationist friends could come up with millions, the Pheil heirs probably would be more than happy to chat. But talk is cheap.

St. Petersburg Preservation also has filed an application seeking "historic" designation for the buildings, even though there is precious little that is "historic" about them aside from being older than Bernie Sanders.

By being irrationally obstructionist in interfering with a perfectly reasonable, legal private sector real estate transaction, Belmont and St. Petersburg Preservation run a very real risk of undermining their credibility.

Communities like St. Petersburg need folks like Belmont and his organization to save and protect a city's unique image and architectural treasures. Fair enough.

But the Pheil Hotel and Theater complex is not one of those treasures. This is not a fight worth waging. This is not as if someone wants to tear down the truly historic Palladium Theater and replace it with a St. Petersburg franchise of the 2001 Odyssey hoochie-coochie club.

Razing the Pheil property will create jobs, generate economic impact and revitalize an all too long dormant piece of land in the heart of the city.

The mission of Belmont's St. Petersburg Preservation to defend the city's history is laudable. And there is certainly more than enough legitimate at-risk properties to keep him busy. Go forth and preserve to your heart's content.

At the same time, the Pheil Hotel and Theater footprint offers the potential for progress. That's worth preserving, too, even if it means saying goodbye to two buildings way beyond their expiration date.

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