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A new design raises hopes for restoring St. Petersburg's historic YMCA building

A conceptual design plan shows an eight-story tower rising behind the former YMCA building at 116 Fifth St. S in downtown St. Petersburg. The tower would have a rooftop bar and 39 rooms to go with 44 rooms proposed for the four-story Y building in the foreground -- all part of a plan to turn the long-vacant historic property into a boutique hotel. Last week, the city's Community Planning and Preservation Commission unanimously approved the plan by developer Nick Ekonomou, but set conditions that must be met before October in order for the project to actually proceed. [J.A. Bodziak AIA Architectural Design]
Published Jul. 18, 2018

ST. PETERSBURG — Nick Ekonomou, the South Florida developer who has owned the deteriorating former YMCA building in downtown since 2015, has come up with a potential new design for the historic Mediterranean Revival-style property.

The former football player has talked about turning the building at 116 Fifth Street S into a boutique hotel, but there has been little to show of his vision until now.

Ekonomou wants to build an eight-story tower with a rooftop bar behind the former Y. The new tower would be steps from the building that houses the Tampa Bay Times. It would have 39 rooms, and the historic four-story building would have 44 rooms.

Last week, members of the city's Community Planning and Preservation Commission appeared relieved to hear there could be some progress at the boarded-up landmark, which has been plagued for years by graffiti, broken windows and trespassers.

The panel unanimously approved Ekonomou's conceptual plan, but set 10 conditions that must be met before October if the project is to proceed. Fulfilling those conditions would be required before a certificate of appropriateness can be issued to allow work to begin.

Derek Kilborn, a manager in the city's urban planning and historic preservation division, said the commission's incremental step of reviewing Ekonomou's conceptual design was unusual.

"We do not normally do this, but it is a building of great importance to the city and this department, so we have a shared interest in seeing the preservation of this building," he said of the landmark, which is listed in the National Register of Historic Places.

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: Redeveloper of St. Petersburg's former downtown YMCA envisions sweeping changes

"For a number of months," he said, "we have been trying to get an itemized list of details so we can bring that forward for a certificate of appropriateness public hearing. We decided to bring it to the commission for a general discussion about the concept plan, so we can try to move the project along."

Conditions Ekonomou must meet include providing a phased rehabilitation plan for the historic building. He also must detail repairs that have been completed so far, provide a parking plan, and show how a proposed new addition will connect to the former Y and whether any part of the historic building would be built on or removed.

The developer will need a certificate of appropriateness to work on the exterior of the historic building and to construct the addition. Several variances also will be required, including to address the distance between the Times building and parking limitations.

"There are still some significant things that the owner and architect have to resolve before this project can be considered for the certificate of appropriateness, and that information could have a significant effect on how this project looks and whether or not they can obtain the variances they need and the certificate of appropriateness they need," Kilborn said.

"We're making progress," Ekonomou said this week. "We'll move forward and do what we have to do."

RELATED: City pressures owner of historic former YMCA to make repairs

The city has cited the building for code violations over the past couple of years. James Corbett, director of codes compliance assistance, said $3,100 in fines have accumulated against the property and are accruing at $100 a day.

"We wanted to ensure that the building was being protected from further deterioration" and for Ekonomou "to understand that he had to take these matters seriously," Corbett said.

But with the desire to get the project moving, he and the urban planning and historic preservation division are addressing the issue with Ekonomou together, Corbett said.

"As long as he is working through their process with good faith, we will defer our action," Corbett said, adding that Ekonomou has fixed the majority of the violations.

"The remaining ones are fairly minor," he said. "The roof is complete. On the exterior wall, there are still some holes and cracks that are open, but probably not enough to cause any intrusion of water."

The old Y was one of the city's largest community funded projects during the 1920s land boom, according to the historic preservation division. Donations from individuals and businesses from around the Tampa Bay area made the then-$550,000 building possible. Construction began in 1925 and the facility opened on June 20, 1927.

Originally, only men and boys were allowed in the building. When women were first permitted, they had to accompany a male member. At the time, there was a separate facility for black residents. The building has been vacant since 2001, when the Y moved to new quarters at 3200 First Ave. S.

The property has changed hands several times since. Ekonomou became the official owner in 2015 after a legal dispute with music promoter Thomas Nestor, who hoped to turn the building into a music museum and performance venue. Nestor is suing a title company because of the failed transaction.

During the July 10 preservation commission meeting, Nestor urged commissioners not to approve Ekonomou's plan. He offered several criticisms, among them that the new tower is "not seamless" and does not fit with the historic structure.

Nestor also read a letter from William Moore, whose grandfather and great grandfather built the former Y. Moore asked the commissioners to deny Ekonomou's plan until "a more appropriate and complete" certificate of appropriateness application is presented.

"We've got a lot of emotion here around this particular historical treasure," said Commissioner Will Michaels. "It is one of the historic gems architecturally of the city and also the social history of the city."

Robert "Bob" Carter, chair of the commission, recalled touring the building some years ago.

"I was very, very concerned … that that building would come down, because it was in such pathetic shape," he said, going on to praise Ekonomou for taking on the project.

"Let's all work together on this thing and make it happen," he said.

Contact Waveney Ann Moore at wmoore@tampabay.com or (727) 892-2283. Follow @wmooretimes

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