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Hotel Detroit, city talks are off

ST. PETERSBURG — A dispute over the historic landmark designation of the Detroit Hotel, built in 1888 by St. Petersburg co-founders Peter Demens and John C. Williams, appears to be heading to trial.

An attempt to resolve the issue fell through late last week, when a mediation session scheduled between attorneys for the city of St. Petersburg and the Hotel Detroit Condominium Association was canceled.

Each side offered different reasons for the impasse.

"My attorney called the city attorney and they said, 'We're not willing to concede or give you any ground and we're only willing to answer questions,' " said Tony Amico of the St. Pete Jannus LLC group that owns four of the 24 condos and the five commercial units at the 215 Central Ave. property. The group also owns the concert venue Jannus Live, the Tamiami Bar at 242 First Ave. N and the old Bishop Hotel at 256 First Ave. N.

"We had scheduled a meeting to maybe settle the matter," assistant city attorney Pam Cichon said. "The attorneys for the Hotel Detroit, they did not think it would be fruitful."

The condominium association filed its lawsuit two years ago, after the city council voted to designate the property historic. It filed an amended complaint in March. Historic designation, the amended complaint states, "severely restricts the individual unit owner's ability to alter or demolish the existing structure or to build a new structure, effectively 'freezing' use of the property to the existing structure."

Landmark status has "destroyed the value of the property and injured the values of my other properties at Jannus Landing," Amico said.

The suit requests that the historic landmark designation be declared invalid. It also seeks legal fees and any other relief the court feels "is just and appropriate."

In a telephone interview, Cichon said the Detroit Hotel owners have "a very defeatist attitude" and have been unwilling to allow the city to explain options for redevelopment.

"Having a historic designation does not prevent them from demolishing and rebuilding," she said, pointing to two other historic downtown properties, the former Grayl's Hotel and the former First Baptist Church.

Grayl's Hotel at 340 Beach Drive NE, built in 1922 as the Lantern Lane Hotel, is undergoing millions of dollars in renovation. The interior of the three-story building has been gutted and the owner announced plans to add a fourth-floor ballroom and a fifth floor rooftop lounge to what will then be renamed the Birchwood Inn.

The former First Baptist Church, which is owned by St. Peter's Episcopal Cathedral, was the subject of years of contention between the cathedral and preservationists, who fought to save the historic neoclassical sanctuary from demolition. An agreement in 2008 allowed demolition of the back of the former church, leaving intact the facade with its Greek revival columns. St. Peter's said it would incorporate the facade into a columbarium.

Richard MacAulay, the city's manager of historic preservation, gave other examples of historic properties that have been modified, including the Vinoy and the Pennsylvania Hotel, now a Courtyard by Marriott. Exterior modifications of historic properties require approval from the Community Preservation Commission, he said.

The Detroit Hotel's landmark status was initiated by St. Petersburg Preservation, a group that works to save important sites and structures in the city. According to the group, the former hotel is "the first significant building constructed in the city."

Detroit Hotel condo owners strenuously fought the city's move to make the site historic.

"All the people who own the property with me, none of us want it," Amico said. "It's private property. It was zoned for redevelopment by the city. It has the highest density of any block in the city of St. Petersburg and a 300-foot height limit. They want to hold us to 45 to 50 feet and not compensate us for the right to build a building on that property."

Amico scoffs at transfer development rights, a financial incentive that allows owners of eligible historic properties to sell credits to developers at another site.

"It's not worth anything," he said. "Nobody's ever bought one. That's what they have offered as compensation."

MacAulay said though several landmarked properties have established inventories of development credits, no sales have been registered with the city.

The trial is set for Nov. 30.

Waveney Ann Moore can be reached at or (727) 892-2283.