It took only a couple of months to undo 30 years of planning. That's all it was before my wife and I decided that St. Petersburg was not to be a temporary job assignment but a timely revelation. And the Old Northeast neighborhood was a big part of it.
Yes, we liked the architectural blend of house styles, reflecting a century of progress and renewal. But more important was the community's vitality with its mixture of old and young families, its reputation for civic engagement, its house concerts and porch parties. Owners of mansions mix easily with renters of garage apartments.
So I can appreciate and sympathize with those who want to preserve the Old Northeast. But are we preserving the right thing, especially when in the process we'll severely restrict property owners' rights throughout the city? That's what becoming a "local historic district" would do, and the city is about to make that a whole lot easier for any neighborhood with homes more than 50 years old.
Last week, the City Council delayed a vote to sharply reduce the number of property owners required to approve applying for local historic status anywhere in the city. Today, that threshold is 66 percent of owners. The City Council is considering reducing that to a majority of those who cast ballots on the issue. Which means a tiny minority of owners in any neighborhood could impact the property rights of everyone there.
But the council's delay is for only three months and only after holding just one meeting for citizens to learn of the implications of local designation.
Changes to home exteriors in historic districts will require approval by a group of unelected volunteers and/or the historic preservation staff. There are added permitting costs and time delays. Most important, many changes would simply not be allowed, while others would be extravagantly expensive.
Want to change your rotted wood windows to energy-efficient, hurricane-proof ones? Not likely to be approved, according to city staff, who say rules would dictate the owner restore the wood windows instead. But they are not hurricane rated, which means higher home insurance premiums.
Recently, we built a garage with a guest room above it. The city insisted we install hurricane windows. But if our neighborhood becomes a local historic district, we would be prohibited from replacing the aluminum single pane windows on our house with hurricane-proof vinyl ones. Ironic, to say the least.
In my neighborhood, Old Northeast just north of downtown, the 1920 owners of Mediterranean Revival homes probably bemoaned the invasion of Craftsman homes, who in turn, looked down their noses at the Tudor Revival dwellings of the '30s, who could not abide the Masonry Vernacular homes of the '40s, who were aghast at the invasion of the Ranch homes of the '50's. Yet, all these styles are now considered homes "contributing" to the neighborhood's historic nature and worthy of preservation.
By trying to save older neighborhoods, we risk destroying them. Young families, who renew and revitalize a neighborhood, can't afford to buy that tired property and fix it up on their budget. Older folks on fixed incomes may not be able to maintain their home if they must use expensive historic materials and construction techniques. Other homes that are long past their usefulness will stand empty because owners or prospective ones are unwilling to spend a fortune to be historical.
What would be disheartening is losing the sustained yet spontaneous tradition of maintaining a beautiful neighborhood over the past 100 years. People did it without being told to. They might express their individuality by painting their bungalow bright pink. They might add a historically incorrect porch from which to view passing neighbors. They might help save the planet with vinyl, energy-efficient windows.
But they do it because they want to live in the moment, not the past. That's a tradition worth preserving.
Bob Griendling lives in the Old Northeast neighborhood of St. Petersburg. He can reached at [email protected].com.