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Rebuilding City Hall gets more discussion

(ran Beach edition)

City Hall, which has been remodeled, replaced and relocated during 15 years of talk, resurfaces Tuesday before the City Commission. This is the debate:

Is City Hall, which turns 40 this year, so over the hill that it should be demolished?

Or is the municipal complex just neglected and in need of some rejuvenating repairs?

The City Commission also could consider selling part or all of the 6.4-acre waterfront property and moving City Hall to another location.

Or the site might be leased to private enterprise as a new revenue source for St. Pete Beach.

A decision would be historic. The future of the city's property at 7701 Boca Ciega Drive has been debated since 1983 without resolution.

Residents have criticized past proposals on the basis they were wasteful or would use taxpayer dollars to enhance private property nearby City Hall. These arguments return to the public sphere.

"This vampire keeps coming back to life to suck the blood out of city coffers," said City Commissioner John Bailey, who represents Pass-a-Grille. "It's relentless. It just keeps coming back. But the public keeps objecting every time it turns into too much of a boondoggle. We need to put a stake in it."

Commissioners last discussed City Hall redevelopment in late 1996. But allegations of sexual harassment and government power struggles last year eclipsed those considerations.

This time around, City Manager Carl Schwing insists residents will have their say as the city decides what, if anything, should be done to its prime hunk of waterfront property near the St. Pete Beach Causeway.

"We're not bound by any decisions previously made," Schwing said. "Everybody should be able to brainstorm all the ideas for this site and have them be fully discussed in public. I want us to make the right decision."

Residents won't be allowed to speak at Tuesday's initial workshop on the issue at 7 p.m. at City Hall, but they can submit written comments.

Prior to leaving Richmond Heights, Mo., for St. Pete Beach last year, Schwing oversaw a project to build city facilities. But Richmond Heights preserved its City Hall, which residents thought was historic.

"I can understand how a City Hall might have sentimental value to a community," Schwing said.

Two years ago, the cost of redeveloping the city's 6.4 acres on Boca Ciega Bay was estimated as much as $3.5-million.

The City Commission had focused on a plan to tear down the City Hall, the old police department and Legion Hall, which are joined by indoor walkways in the center of the property, and also demolish the city's annex on 75th Avenue.

A new administrative building, ranging from 17,000 to 19,000 square feet, was proposed to combine city departments in one location. The new building would be on the current City Hall site. (City Hall and its annex comprise about 18,770 square feet.)

A waterfront boardwalk and "Gateway Park" would be created at the entrance to the city where the annex was. The city gymnasium and the nearly new police headquarters would not be affected.

"But the main thing is that almost every city office is below the flood plain now," St. Petersburg architect Richard Kimbrough said. "If we have a major flood, their records will be gone."

As a secondary option, Kimbrough proposed building an administrative wing for all the city departments. But the commission could keep the current City Hall, containing the City Commission chambers.

Any new development on the land has to take into account the boxy, white police department, which was finished in 1995 and since has been criticized for clashing with its surroundings.

Schwing said the city could use about $1-million from the 1988 sale of Star Island land to developers to help finance the project.

The idea of remodeling the existing City Hall has been unpopular with city staff.

O.E. Olsen, a prominent engineer and builder, examined City Hall two years ago for $250 and determined the building was "too fragile a structure" to undergo extensive remodeling, which was needed.

But former Commissioner Paul Aldhizer, who served in the late 1960s and 1970s, thinks the city should go back and re-evaluate the costs and benefits of renovations.

"They've got the prettiest city hall in the state of Florida as far as I'm concerned," Aldhizer said. "They could spend a lot less than $3-million if they just tried to renovate and repair it. Why don't we hang in there, and try to pay off our debt, rather than spending more money?"

Major renovations to City Hall could cost more than $500,000, Kimbrough said.

But renovations could be restricted by federal rules that limit major improvements to 50 percent of a building's value. Beyond that, a building has to be upgraded and elevated to withstand a flood in order to qualify for federal flood insurance.

Two years ago, city staff had an appraisal done that pronounced the value of the old City Hall complex to have depreciated to $108,000, limiting possible renovations to an unrealistic $54,000.

City Hall buildings, however, are assessed for tax purposes at four times more than that. Kimbrough said renovations might be allowed up to $200,000 to $250,000. Another way to get around federal rules would be to designate City Hall as a historic structure, he said.

Current renovation needs at City Hall, according to a recent survey by city staff, would include a $93,000 roof, a $40,000 air-conditioning system and the replacement of steel columns for $195,000. In the city's annex, staff also concluded a new roof is needed for about $39,600 to stop leaks.

Kimbrough knows St. Pete Beach City Hall well, having first studied the property in 1983. Since then, Kimbrough has written five master plans that were debated and dropped. In 1996, he was paid about $10,400 for the latest proposal.

Kimbrough said all of his plans have one thing in common: The city should capitalize on its waterfront, which is fenced off to prevent people from walking near the edge.

When built, City Hall was a point of pride for this young city. The American Institute of Architects gave the building its 1959 Merit Award, thanks to the design of William Harvard and B.E. Jolly. "It was a dynamite design," former Mayor George Manthos said.

Manthos said it would be a shame to see the building destroyed.

"An independent evaluation should be made," Manthos said. "They need to bring in a consulting engineer who has never had anything to do with this. . . . If they decide to go ahead with anything, they need to take it to referendum."

City officials started talking about redeveloping the City Hall property when the buildings were barely 25 years old.

Mayor Ron McKenney was a commissioner in 1983 when City Manager Jeff Stone proposed making the City Hall property "part of an ambitious redevelopment program of the Corey Landings" area which will "compliment future commercial development."

The city considered leasing its land to a developer for 40 years or selling part of it so more retail shops, office space, a marina and even a hotel could be built on the site in addition to city offices.

In 1987, McKenney appealed to developers to build the city a building elsewhere for free. Then a developer might be able to create a shopping complex like John's Pass Village on the city's land. The idea died.

John Stross, chairman of the Johnny Leverock's Seafood House chain, which has a restaurant and property near City Hall, said then that he wanted to create a unique shopping area, but that the proposal was not feasible at the time.

Two years later, plans for retail space were scrapped and city officials pushed building a large marina adjacent to City Hall. Residents voted down that proposal by 2-to-1 in a referendum in 1989.

"We wanted to see them build something everyone could use rather than a marina that would just benefit a few people," said Gail Garrison, a resident who sat on the Future of the City Planning Committee at the time. The committee was charged with developing plans for the city's waterfront property.

Opponents of the marina said it would pollute Boca Ciega Bay and cause more openings of the causeway drawbridge. Although McKenney favored the marina, he said when running for re-election this year that he would not bring that idea back up again.

A decade later, with no marina and no fancy shopping complex on the City Hall property, the Corey Landings area across the street has vacant buildings. One such business, the now defunct Club 21, was once the site of the Corey Avenue Seafood House, which was run by McKenney and another past mayor and real estate agent, Mike Horan.

Redevelopment, however, is being planned right across the street from City Hall. Builder Paul Skipper, of Native Development Inc., has had plans approved to build a 20,000-square-foot office building at the defunct Paradise Mini-Golf, 155 Corey Avenue.

The property, once owned by the first mayor of St. Pete Beach, William Upham, has been considered over the years as an alternative site for City Hall.

Recently, Schwing has talked to some Corey Avenue merchants about the idea of moving City Hall.

"If the City Commission is going to look at options, I think they should look at all the options," Schwing said.

Most of the value in the City Hall complex is in the property. In 1987, the site was appraised at about $2-million for tax purposes. Today, the land alone is worth double that, according to tax records.

The fate of City Hall rests with city commissioners who, with the exception of Bailey, who favors renovation, haven't taken a strong stand.

"Most of the residents are telling me they don't think we need it," said Commissioner John Phillips Jr. "I'm still not ready to give an opinion. I'm only a third of the way through all the reading I need to do. I have a lot of questions."

St. Pete Beach City Hall

The city has been debating changes to its municipal complex more than 15 years. Here are some landmarks:


St. Pete Beach City Hall, 7701 Boca Ciega Drive, is constructed a year after the city is incorporated.


St. Petersburg architect Richard Kimbrough writes a plan to renovate City Hall, build a new police headquarters on 75th Avenue and enhance the waterfront's use with a small marina.

The city signs a contract to purchase the property of Mayor Richard Misener on the southeastern corner of City Hall on 75th Avenue.


Kimbrough writes another plan: Construct a large marina, a new $1.1-million police building, a waterfront promenade to properties on the other side of 75th Avenue, and renovate City Hall.


Hurricane Elena brushes past the Gulf Coast, causing flooding and delaying plans.


The City Commission creates the Future of the City Planning Committee to develop a new plan for City Hall and how to pay for it.

City Manager Jeff Stone proposes to make the City Hall property "part of an ambitious redevelopment program of the Corey Landings" area with retail shops, office space, a marina and even a hotel.


Mayor Ron McKenney supports swapping the City Hall property for another site farther inland as long as a developer agrees to build the new city complex for free. The idea fizzles.


Kimbrough writes another plan for the city property that emphasizes the construction of a large marina near the St. Pete Beach Causeway. Retail shops can wait. By a margin of 2-to-1, beach voters oppose the marina in a referendum.


Kimbrough deletes the marina. He proposes adding office space to City Hall and moving the police department from cramped quarters north of City Hall to 75th Avenue.


Architects Design Group completes yet another master plan for the city property which determines a new police department is the first priority of the city. Voters approve the project by referendum.


New police department is over budget and late being completed.


Kimbrough starts again. Discussion focuses on razing the existing City Hall and annex to build one new 17,000-square-foot building. Residents sign a petition opposing any inclusion of a marina in the plans.


The City Commission renews debate on the issue.

Sources: Times files, city records, Pinellas County Property Appraiser.