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Much of historic bank building on Central Avenue might see wrecking ball, new apartments

Many will remember the bank by its clock.
Published Dec. 10, 2015

ST. PETERSBURG — A decadeslong wait to redevelop a key block on Central Avenue might be nearing an end after a city commission approved the demolition of most of the historic 89-year-old Union Trust bank building.

The redevelopment of the block downtown was a priority for Mayor Rick Kriseman.

The developer, Art Village I LLC of Tampa, wants to tear down much of the building that occupies the north side of the 800 block, a stretch of Central that lacks the bustle of the city's main artery that exists to the east and west.

Art Village wants to build four stories of apartments on top of the historic 1926 portion's roof along with a terrace connecting to an eight-story apartment tower to the north and east. The plan also includes street-level retail and a parking garage.

Preservationists opposed demolishing the building's 1930's expansion, but architect Tim Clemmons of Mesh Architecture submitted cost estimates that showed the 1938 addition to be functionally and financially unviable.

Those estimates were submitted the day before Tuesday's hearing before the Community Planning and Preservation Commission.

Preservationists cried foul, saying the decision should have been delayed so that they had a chance to review the evidence that the 1938 portion can't be reused.

"There may well have been a viable use for it," said Peter Belmont, the vice president of St. Petersburg Preservation. "It was almost an ambush tactic."

The newly rewritten historic preservation ordinance requires specific evidence when a landmark is up for alteration or demolition, he said. That evidence wasn't sufficient, he said.

"It was just a bad process," Belmont said.

Belmont said the preservation group is weighing its options. The City Council must approve the commission's decision.

If the 1938 and 1967 additions are demolished, about half of the 53,000-square-foot structure will meet the wrecking ball.

The hulking building, which includes windowless additions from 1967, has been vacant since 1996, when NationsBank, now Bank of America, moved out. But it has a storied history.

The Union Trust bank failed in 1930 but emerged the same year after a reorganization, billing itself as the only local bank to weather the Great Depression. Eventually, the bank became the largest state-chartered bank in Florida. Almost every loan, land sale, home mortgage or savings account started at the stately Union Trust building. Customers wore suits or high heels and pearls to conduct business amid its cherry paneling and ornate decor. Tellers worked behind brass cages, while executives sat in offices above with small interior windows from which to monitor the comings and goings of people and money below in the crowded lobby.

There was an employee cafeteria with dumbwaiters. A grand marble staircase led to the huge vault in the basement and almost 20 rooms for private deposits or withdrawals from safe deposit boxes. During the Cuban Missile Crisis, residents joked about taking shelter in the vault in case of an attack.

The City Council approved a historic designation for the building in 2004.

In recent years, city economic development officials have marketed the property, hoping for redevelopment to connect a bustling eastern stretch of Central Avenue that runs to the waterfront with the Edge and Grand Central districts to the west.

"This is a great example of honoring our past and pursuing the future. We want to preserve what we can whenever we can," Kriseman said in a statement.

Contact Charlie Frago at cfrago@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8459. Follow@CharlieFrago.

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