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Owners of St. Pete's 'cheese-grater' buildings apply for demolition permit

Old photo and postcard of the original buildings in the 400 block of Central Avenue in downtown St. Petersburg before they were covered with aluminum grating that made them resemble a giant cheese grater. The current owners have reached an agreement that could lead to demolition of the buildings and redevelopment of the prime site. Courtesy: St. Petersburg Preservation
Published Jan. 22, 2016

ST. PETERSBURG — Once-warring owners of the 400 block of Central Avenue have applied for a permit to demolish three buildings on the site and free up the land for a mixed-use project .

Opposition, though, is almost sure to come from preservationists who say the buildings have historic value and could be reused.

Attorney Donald Mastry, representing the block's owners, filed the initial paperwork for a permit this week. Once the application is complete, the city will give interested parties 30 days notice of the intent to tear down the buildings, which date to the 1920s and once housed the upscale Pheil Theater and hotel.

Ownership of the block is currently split between the Pheil family, descendants of an early St. Petersburg mayor, and First States Investors, a real estate investment trust that acquired the buildings when it foreclosed on loan in 2004. Until recently, the Pheils had refused to release the trust from long-term land leases that are costing it $700,00 a year.

The two sides have now reached a financial agreement contingent on First States demolishing the buildings so family members can sell the property to a developer at a time when the rest of downtown is flourishing. Both ownership groups say it would cost more to renovate the long-vacant buildings — now covered with aluminium grilling that gives them a cheese-grater appearance — than it would be to put up a new one.

RELATED: As development deal nears, a look inside St. Pete buildings 'frozen in time'

The buildings, however, are on a list of properties eligible for landmark designation. Peter Belmont of St. Petersburg Preservation said the group hopes the city will grant them landmark status, a move that he said would help increase downtown's appeal to the growing number of "cultural tourists'' interested in history.

"We believe it's in the city's best interest to protect that feel and sense of place,'' he said Friday "We'd love the city to start the process (of landmark designation) but if neither the owners nor the city starts it, then in all likelihood we would.''

If a third party like Belmont's group does seek landmark status, the matter would go to the city's planning and preservation commission, then to the city council.

Contact Susan Taylor Martin at smartin@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8642. Follow @susanskate

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