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Romano: A modern debate in a historic neighborhood

The owner of this house built in the 1920s on 18th Ave in St. Petersburg's Old Northeast neighborhood has been approved by the city to tear it down and build a larger home. Nearby residents of the historic district are appealing to the City Council to have the approval reversed. [John Romano]
Wednesday 22 August 2018 14.01

The house is toast. Let’s begin there.

Built in the 1920s, and neglected in recent years, it needs a major overhaul at the very least and is probably better off being torn down to its foundation. Folks are mostly in agreement on this point.

After that, the story gets messy.

Developer Richard McGinniss bought the home in St. Petersburg’s Old Northeast neighborhood three years ago and, if you believe his neighbors, was always intending to replace it with a McMansion.

Meanwhile, the folks on 18th Avenue sought to have their 10-house street designated as a historic district with the sole purpose, if you believe McGinniss’ attorney, of blocking his client’s plans.

And that’s where we’re at today:

With the City Council being asked, essentially, to decide whether to side with a frustrated homeowner or his unhappy neighbors. There’s a lot of other technical stuff, but that’s the gist of it.

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So why should you care?

Because this type of dispute is going to become more and more common, especially in St. Pete where historic districts are being approved with increasing regularity.

"We believe if the city allows him to do this, it’s going to negate the protections a lot of these mini historic districts thought they were being given,’’ said Britt Cobb, who has opposed the plans submitted by McGinniss. "We don’t think the house fits the guidelines whatsoever, and it’s only going to lead to more of this speculated development in historic neighborhoods.’’

Neighbors did not fight McGinniss on the proposed demolition of the house, as long as the proposed replacement fit the 1920s style and size of other houses in their recently anointed historic district.

His first proposal was denied by officials, but subsequent revisions were okayed by city staff and eventually the city’s preservation commission. Neighbors contend, however, that the city did not follow its own rules and procedures during the process, and are appealing to the council today.

Attorney Don Mastry, who represents McGinniss, said the blessing of the city’s staff proves this is not about size or style or architecture. McGinniss has previously built larger, modern homes in nearby communities, and Mastry said neighbors in Old Northeast were determined to keep him off their street.

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"They don’t like him. This whole historic district was created just to stop him,’’ Mastry said. "This is personal. It has nothing to do with height or square footage.’’

So who’s right?

There’s a lot to be said for preserving the flavor, and yes the history, of our neighborhoods. And if a majority of residents are in agreement, they have every right to establish rules and guidelines to protect the investment they have made in their homes.

But I have a problem with retroactively applying rules. If McGinniss had bought the house after the historic designation had been created, then he should be obligated to follow those standards. But changing the rules on him months after spending close to $400,000 on a house seems unfair.

"Every house in the neighborhood was bought before the vote, so when do you start the clock?’’ asked Emily Elwyn, president of Preserve the ’Burg. "This is a really important decision because it is going to set the tone in terms of whether we build houses that fit the characteristics and flavor of neighborhoods or whether we’re going to allow houses that are not appropriate for a district.’’

I would guess council members will be sympathetic to the arguments of neighbors and preservationists. They will agree with almost every point.

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And they still won’t reverse the decision.

If that happens, Cobb said neighbors may pursue litigation against the city for failing to follow its own rules.

Meanwhile, demolition and construction would begin. McGinniss has been living in the house and planned to make it his home after the rebuild, but now may be having second thoughts about his neighbors.

"He bought it with intention of making it his residence,’’ Mastry said. "I don’t think he is really too enthusiastic about that now.’’

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