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'Cheese grater' buildings denied historic status by preservation board

A preservation group sought the status for the “cheese grater” property on a prime downtown St. Petersburg block.
A preservation group sought the status for the “cheese grater” property on a prime downtown St. Petersburg block.
Published May 11, 2016

ST. PETERSBURG — The city's Community Planning and Preservation Commission on Tuesday rejected a request from preservationists to designate the former Pheil Hotel and Theater and Central National Bank local landmarks.

The commission's decision, reached by a 5-2 vote, will now go to the City Council, where a supermajority vote is required.

It was an important victory for the owners of the buildings, which are on a prime downtown block along Central Avenue. The owners are trying to demolish the buildings to pave the way for a promised mixed-use project. If the buildings had been deemed historic, the designation would have complicated, or even delayed, those plans.

The vote was a setback, however, for St. Petersburg Preservation, a group that seeks "to keep St. Pete special" and had sought the designation.

"We're still hopeful that all the parties can come together and find a solution that is best for the community and for preservation," said the group's vice president, Peter Belmont.

The property, widely mocked as the "cheese grater" because of its aluminum facade, has been tied up in a ground lease that wasn't going to expire until 2058. Late last year the two parties on the lease, descendants of Abram C. Pheil, the city's mayor in 1912, and First States Investors, a real estate investment trust, ended a protracted legal dispute and the property was put on the market.

Mark Stroud, the Pheils' broker, says there's already a buyer for the prime downtown block, but that the sale is contingent on the buildings being demolished.

The Pheils say that the former hotel and theater structure has been considerably altered since it opened in the 1920s and has no historic value. The preservationists disagree, saying that beneath the 1960 facade are "two historic and beautiful buildings."

The group has also filed a lawsuit seeking to overturn a city decision giving the owners permission to demolish the buildings.

Most speakers during the open forum portion of Tuesday's meeting opposed the designation, including representatives of key groups such as the St. Petersburg Downtown Neighborhood Association, St. Petersburg Area Chamber of Commerce and the St. Petersburg Downtown Partnership.

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