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Preservations file lawsuit to prevent demolition of Pheil Hotel, National Bank buildings

ST. PETERSBURG — Preservationists have opened a new front in their fight to prevent demolition of two historic downtown buildings.

The group St. Petersburg Preservation has filed a lawsuit in Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Court seeking to overturn a city decision to allow the owners of the early 20th century Pheil Hotel and Theater and Central National Bank to raze the buildings. They sit on the block that stretches from Central Avenue to First Avenue S and Fourth Street to Fifth Street.

The property is owned by the Pheil family, descendants of Abram C. Pheil — the city's mayor in 1912 — and First States Investors, a real estate investment trust. The block is slated for redevelopment.

Despite an appeal from the preservation group, the city's Development Review Commission granted the demolition request based on an exemption to city codes.

Regulations require that demolition cannot be approved in the downtown district without an approved site plan and a complete building permit application.

"We think that the city made an incorrect decision and one that is not beneficial to the city and we're asking the court to review that," said Peter Belmont, vice president of St. Petersburg Preservation. "Our purpose is to prevent demolition until there's a plan for what the future will bring to that block. … We also know that there are developers who are interested in reusing those buildings."

Don Mastry, the lawyer representing First States, called the suit "an outrageous step" that has no merit.

"The choice facing St. Petersburg is whether to allow this block to get a fresh start, or whether to keep this vacant eyesore for 42 more years," he said, referring to the complicated, long-term lease that until recently had prevented an agreement between the two owners.

"There is no path that leads to restoration of the property which has been on the market already for 10 years," Mastry said.

St. Petersburg Preservation has also filed an application asking that the buildings be designated historic.

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

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