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Bay Plaza wants to move house

Smarting from the Soreno Hotel fight, developer Bay Plaza Cos. is hoping to play a good-guy role and save the historic Perry Snell House. The company wants to move the house out of the path of its downtown development to a bucolic setting several miles away.

But its foe, Save Our St. Petersburg (SOS), first wants to see if the Snell home at 105 Second Ave. NE can be renovated and stay downtown, and a new battle over preservation is brewing.

The preservationists and the downtown developer are challenging each other's commitment, suggesting that each is more preservation-minded than the other.

"We would hope SOS would realize that Bay Plaza intends wherever possible to assist in preservation," said Bay Plaza president Robert L. Jackson Jr.

Bay Plaza in January demolished the vacant Soreno Hotel, winning against protests by SOS and others who tried to save the hotel, which opened in January 1924. Jackson had called renovation "economic suicide." The implosion of the Mediterranean Revival structure was augmented with explosives and a stunt crew from the movie Lethal Weapon III, which may use the footage in a final scene when the movie opens in May.

Jackson says Bay Plaza eventually will redevelop the Soreno site as part of a planned outdoor plaza with shops, restaurants and theaters. But with construction stalled by the economy, no dates have been set and the lot will be cleared and planted with grass for now.

The Soreno, 100 Beach Drive NE, was the first of four downtown structures that SOS was hoping to save from the $200-million Bay Plaza project. Three are left: Jannus Landing, the Ponce de Leon Hotel and the Perry Snell House. Bay Plaza's plans for Jannus Landing, a collection of stores and restaurants bordered by Central and First avenues N and Second and Third streets, are uncertain because it is not in the core of the development and other blocks must be developed first.

The closed Ponce de Leon at 94 Central Ave. likely will have to go because it is not consistent with Bay Plaza's low-rise plans, but no decision on a date has been made. "It's difficult for us to determine what utilization could be made of the Ponce in our project," Jackson said.

The Snell House is more immediate. Bay Plaza wants to move the house, the first home of an early city settler, and curators of the Pinellas Pioneer Settlement near Boyd Hill Nature Park would love to have it. When Jane Yeager, chairwoman of Pinellas Pioneer Settlement, asked if SOS and Bay Plaza would be willing to give matching sums of $5,000 to assist the move, Bay Plaza said it would give $10,000 instead and lend technical assistance.

But SOS declined.

SOS president Tim Clemmons said the group doesn't have $5,000, even though a $5,000 donation was recently pledged by Lethal Weapon producer Joel Silver. Silver pledged the money when preparing for the Soreno's implosion; he had become frustrated by Bay Plaza's unwillingness to wait five days to better accommodate Warner Bros.' filming schedule, and he struck an alliance with SOS attorney Peter Belmont.

But the donation hasn't arrived, and SOS plans to use some of it to pay for printing, postage and other debts, Clemmons said.

Moving the Snell House may be desirable, but it is premature, SOS officers contend. They say they first want to see whether the city will declare the building a historic landmark. Landmark status would not absolutely protect the house, but would set up a series of hurdles for Bay Plaza to overcome. Developers would have to prove that it was financially or structurally unfeasible to renovate the building before they could tear it down or move it.

SOS has not yet asked the city to give the Snell House that status, but it has suggested that when it does, Bay Plaza join in and sign the application, too.

"SOS invites the Bay Plaza Cos. to show the community that you do indeed support historic preservation by joining with SOS in co-sponsoring the landmark application for the Perry Snell House," SOS attorney Belmont wrote in a Feb. 9 letter to Jackson.

"As you should be aware, designation as a landmark does not prevent either demolition or relocation of the landmark," the letter states. "Designation does, however, insure that an appropriate review of potential use of the structure is completed prior to any decision being made to demolish or to relocate the structure."

During the Soreno debate, Jackson accused SOS supporters of trying to obstruct all downtown development. But Clemmons said recently that the historic preservation ordinance was passed by the City Council to protect local landmarks, and SOS or others should not be faulted for using it.

"I don't see how by trying to enforce our city codes and ordinances we can be viewed as obstructionists. If we don't believe in the city's ordinance, we should take it off the books. If not, we should use it."