ST. PETERSBURG — For some time, property owners and entire St. Petersburg neighborhoods have been caught up in arguments about the benefits and vagaries of the city’s historic designation process.
A growing tension forced the City Council this year to declare a moratorium on third-party historic designations, a process some say violates their property rights.
The debate became more fraught when the city released a working list of properties it said were potentially eligible for designation. The outcry from surprised property owners has led to a plan to discuss the matter with residents later this year.
But there’s another side. Some property owners want historic designation, which can offer tax breaks if accompanied by substantial restoration or renovation. Three appeared before the city’s Community Planning and Preservation Commission this week to make their case.
One was a trust seeking historic designation for the former Norwood Elementary School at 2154 27th Ave. N, built in 1925 and closed more than a decade ago. Second Veterans’ Property Trust is under contract to buy the property from the Pinellas County School District for $950,000 and plans to convert the classrooms into 38 voucher-assisted units for veterans.
Developer Jason Sanchez of Bluewater Builders St Pete LLC spoke about his plan to save a 1928 church and convert it to a single-family home.
And Nancy and Patrick Dowling are trying to restore a mid-century modern home they fell in love with that was designed by award-winning St. Petersburg architect William B. Harvard. Harvard probably is best known for designing the city’s former inverted pyramid Pier.
Tuesday’s agenda pleased the commission, which has seen its share of hysterics, and led Commissioner Will Michaels to tout the “fantastic step forward for historic preservation.” But it was not without interesting moments.
A neighbor opposing the Dowlings’ application showed photographs of the interior of their home at 5027 Sunrise Drive S to make the point that it had been altered and that the application should be denied. Michael Maiello explained Wednesday that he took the pictures while he was waiting to meet with Patrick Dowling and had been invited into the house by a contractor.
Maiello later told the Tampa Bay Times that he was “protesting the changes that were not addressed in the application and staff report, which affect the historic integrity of the structure.”
“We love the house. We want to make it ours,” Patrick Dowling, who taught design at the University of Texas at Dallas, told the commission. He said he has been unable to find a contractor to work on upgrades to the 1954 home, including rewiring and plumbing.
Dowling also said he had been advised to get historic designation to avoid federal rules regarding repairs or reconstruction to properties in the flood plain. Basically, if the cost of improvements or the cost to repair a property exceeds 49 percent of its appreciated value, the property must be brought up to current flood plain standards. Historic buildings can be exempt from those requirements.
Maiello, who says he believes in preservation, told the commission he had demolished a similar mid-century modern house he owned next to the Dowlings. Later, during an interview, he said the city kept denying his plans because of the same flood plain rules Patrick Dowling mentioned.
He told the commission he wanted to know what’s behind the Dowlings’ request, whether it was for historic designation or “to avoid the rules” regarding properties in the flood plain. Two other neighbors joined him in speaking against the designation, with one citing concerns about obligations it might impose on the entire community.
Commissioners approved the Dowlings’ request.
The application from Sanchez seeking designation of the former American Baptist Church of the Beatitudes, at 801 28th Ave. N, also was approved. It came after uncharacteristic collaboration between the neighborhood association, which initially filed a third-party application to save the entire church property, and the developer, who had been reluctant to delay his project and incur increased costs.
“We offered to sell it to the neighborhood association. Now that we are this far along, I am happy to do what we’re doing,” said Sanchez, who added that he didn’t like being told what to do with his property by a third-party. “In the beginning, I was upset that somebody could do that. I am happy where we ended up."
His application was only for the 1928 portion of the structure, originally the home of Grace Lutheran Church. Its stained-glass windows are being saved, as well as some of the pews, which will find new use in a breakfast nook and gentleman’s bar. The cross atop the cupola will remain.
Jennifer Wright, president of the Crescent Heights Neighborhood Association, hugged Sanchez after the commission’s approval. “We are so excited and relieved that we get to keep the church in the neighborhood and the process is finally coming to an end,” she told the Times. “It’s a beautiful building and it adds to the charm of our neighborhood.”
Joseph Perlman, agent for the trust buying the former school, said construction should begin early next year. Besides a tax break, there are other benefits to getting historic designation for the property, he said. “You have the basic foundation and the exterior walls are going to remain and you’ve got a good location," he said. "Why reinvent the wheel, when you don’t have to?”
The applications will go before the City Council in October for final approval.