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Block by block, St. Petersburg Preservation still fighting to preserve history

St. Petersburg Preservation president Emily Elwyn poses at 142 Fifth Ave. N, one of four vacant homes on the block that the group is trying to have designated as a historic landmark.
St. Petersburg Preservation president Emily Elwyn poses at 142 Fifth Ave. N, one of four vacant homes on the block that the group is trying to have designated as a historic landmark.
Published Jan. 31, 2017

ST. PETERSBURG — The towers transforming downtown's skyline showcase the city's building boom, but those striving to preserve the city's history fear that progress could overshadow its past.

"When we are in a boom like we are now, we lose more of our historic properties," said former City Council member Jeff Danner. "People are more likely to tear something down and build something new and bigger."

Danner is a member of St. Petersburg Preservation, which has spent almost four decades fighting to preserve the city's historic landmarks. The organization is as busy as ever, trying to save some of downtown's oldest buildings in an era of rapid redevelopment.

To that end, members want to see historic landmarks serve as the backbone for newly created historic districts. The group believes that "more focus should be given to district rather than individual landmark designations," said vice president Peter Belmont.

"It is largely the grouping of historic resources that gives downtown its sense of place and makes it special."

Even as the preservationists strive to keep the city "special," they are sensitive to the perception that they're against growth. Tony Amico, who wants to redevelop the historic "First Block," certainly thinks so.

He has a message for the preservationists: "If they want the city to preserve something, they should work with the city to raise the money to buy the property."

St. Petersburg Preservation's latest effort is centered on saving four vacant homes on the 100 block of Fifth Avenue N, one of which belonged to the city's first woman elected to municipal office.

"We are concerned that we are losing what makes us special. Piece by piece. Death by paper cuts," said president Emily Elwyn.

Belmont said the city doesn't seem "to have any plan for what is important to keep, to make sure we maintain our character."

Property owners have chafed at the group's efforts. They've also succeeded in overcoming St. Petersburg Preservation's objections.

Last year, the group tried to save the "cheese grater" buildings on Central Avenue's 400 block and lost. The now vacant property is poised for redevelopment by billionaire John Catsimatidis of New York's Red Apple Group.

Then there's Amico's plans for the historic "First Block," which is bounded by Second and Third streets and First Avenue N and Central Avenue. When he proposed building a 25-story residential tower a few months ago, the preservation group rose to protect it. So far, their effort to get the block designated a local landmark has failed.

Amico said he still plans to redevelop the property and has been meeting with Mayor Rick Kriseman and city staff "to work out a development plan that makes sense."

"I am asking for a 15-year development agreement," he said, "which would mean I wouldn't have to start development for 15 years on a plan that has been pre-approved."

He added that the new development "would fit with the theme of the old buildings."

City Council member Steve Kornell believes that preservation and development are compatible.

"Both are going to happen and it's a matter of striking a fair and right balance between the two," he said. "I think we've done a pretty good job.

"I think there's maybe always going to be a little bit of conflict."

Kornell challenged Elwyn's group to find developers committed to preservation.

"I don't like using historic preservation against a developer," Kornell said. "I think that's unfair, especially for a developer with thin margins."

The group is unapologetic in championing its cause. "The city has hardworking preservation staff," Belmont said, "but city leaders have failed to establish a plan to identify what historic buildings are important to keep and to reuse."

Derek Kilborn, manager of the city's urban planning and historic preservation division, said St. Petersburg now has 114 historic landmarks. There are 44 other sites potentially eligible for the designation.

The preservation group disagreed with a list of 134 potentially eligible properties presented to the Community Planning and Presentation Commission last year, he said.

"They felt that the list did not go far enough, because there were areas of the city that had not been surveyed," Kilborn said. "But we felt it was an important first step."

There are now plans to continue the discussion with a group consisting of city staff, preservationists, the Greater St. Petersburg Chamber of Commerce and small businesses.

Chris Steinocher, president and CEO of the chamber, says there's a way to encourage development and at the same time save historic structures.

"Great cities have funding mechanisms to support those wanting to preserve and develop," he said. "There's also private sector groups that put together funds to 'do it themselves.'

"The public sector and private sector both have a role to ensure smart development . . . It requires constant dialogue, education and encouragement to balance how any city grows.''

Danner said there's a lot in the city's historic preservation ordinance, such as tax breaks, and in its building code, to encourage development of historic properties. The approach to development downtown is not just a preservation issue, he said, but "good economic planning."

"If all new construction results in high-end condos and towers and office buildings with top-of-the-market lease rates, then you get a certain clientele for that . . . " he said, "with less opportunity for start-ups and smaller companies."

Smaller rehab projects, Elwyn said, like the 600 Central Avenue block, have opened opportunities for small and unique businesses to be downtown.

The group effort to save the four Fifth Avenue N houses that have been in foreclosure since 2009 has yielded mixed results. Earlier this month, the Community Planning and Preservation Commission agreed that two of the homes are eligible for landmark status. The City Council will make the final decision, which could be contested in court.

The homes, on a site once earmarked for a hotel and condominiums, include one at 136 Fifth Ave. N that belonged to Virginia Burnside. In 1920, she was the first woman elected to public office in St. Petersburg.

"These are what we call orphan buildings," Elwyn said as she stood in front of the neglected houses recently. "This is what we're struggling with. You can let your building fall apart and then demolish it."

Her group points to a house in the Lang's Bungalow Court Historic District west of downtown that is scheduled for the wrecking ball.

Rob Gerdes, the city's director of codes compliance assistance, said, however, that maintenance issues at the two-story 335 Lang Court N house predate the neighborhood's designation as a historic district.

"Our demolition case would not have prohibited a rehab," he said, adding that new owner Michael Hippert had agreed in 2014 to repair the building. In December, the structure was found to be structurally unsound. Hippert now has until Feb. 17 to demolish the house.

"Preservation is hard and it's easy to say we love preservation," Elwyn said, "but it's hard to achieve that commitment."

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