ST. PETERSBURG — The battle over the former home of Doc Webb, founder of the "World's Most Unusual Drug Store,'' has ratcheted up, with the current owners of the house claiming a neighbor is trying to extort them and the neighbor saying she has been falsely accused of "duplicity'' and "improper motive.''
The escalating dispute forced the postponement of a public hearing scheduled for today on a request to designate the nearly century old house a local historic landmark. It is the second time a hearing has been postponed on the request, which was filed last fall by Anne Dowling on behalf of a group called Allendale Terrace Neighbors United.
In a letter emailed to city officials on Friday, an attorney for current owners Karen and Merrill King say Dowling wants to buy the house and large lot for $750,000 — $210,000 less than what a developer has contracted to pay for it.
"It became clear that the real reason that the applicant submitted this application (for historic designation) was an attempt to force the Kings to sell their property to the applicant at an extorted and below-market price,'' the letter said.
Dowling, though, said she did not know the contract price until this week and that the $750,000 she offered was the least, not the most, she would pay.
"The Doc Webb estate deserves to be saved even if it means that my name and character do not escape the process unscathed,'' Dowling wrote in her own email to city staffers. "Anyone who knows me and my advocacy for Allendale Terrace and historic homes knows the truth and that is good enough for me.''
James "Doc" Webb lived in the two-story house at 774 36th Ave. N from about 1935 to 1974, the year he sold his enormous Webb's City store with its mermaids and dancing chickens. (It closed in 1979). The Kings, who have owned the house since 1986, obtained confirmation from the city in August that the property could be redeveloped into four buildable lots.
In October, the Kings contracted to sell the property to David Weekley Homes for $960,000. In November, though, Dowling filed the application for historic designation, setting in motion a process that could potentially block demolition of the house and construction of four new houses in its place.
Dowling and several people who have sent comments to the city say the house should be preserved because of its long association with Webb.
"This is the home that he was proud of, that he decorated for Christmas, that he invited the community to and used as a showpiece and used to say, 'I'm Doc Webb and I'm part of this community,''' Dowling said. "He set the tone in this neighborhood and that's why this house is so important.''
Through their attorney, though, the Kings note that Webb also lived other places in St. Petersburg, including a house at 2336 12th St. N in the Euclid Place/St. Paul area.
That house "is historically far more important because Doc Webb and his family lived there when his store was founded in 1925,'' lawyer Jacob Cremer wrote in his email to city staffers.
And while proponents of historic designation say the Allendale Terrace house has architectural value, Cremer said it has been changed enough over the years that it is now an "architectural mongrel.''
The Kings, "in the spirit of cooperation, had offered to work with Dowling, city staff and the organization Preseve the 'Burg to consider historic designation just for the lot with the house, Cremer wrote. But after months of talks, Dowling then showed her "duplicity'' and"improper motive'' by submitting an offer $210,000 less than what Weekley Homes had contracted to pay, Cremer wrote.
In his letter, Cremer warns that the city could be subject to legal action if it designates the house a landmark. Based on the confirmation they received from the city, "the Kings and Weekley Homes have vested rights to demolish the structures on the property and redevelop it into four residential lots, which rights cannot be interfered with,'' Cremer wrote.
Derek Kilborn, manager of St. Peterburg's Urban Planning and Historic Preservation Division, said city staff and the city attorney's office will continue to work with Dowling and the Kings through their attorney.
Contact Susan Taylor Martin at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8642. Follow @susanskate.