Battle over St. Petersburg’s historic, or not, properties gets hotter

Neighbors sue neighbors, owners sue city over what’s historic and what’s not
Published February 7
Updated February 8

ST. PETERSBURG — The city’s skies have been studded with construction cranes, but the rapid development is giving rise to tension between those intent on preserving the old and others who consider that advocacy a violation of property rights.

Three recent lawsuits pit one side against the other:

•Residents in one of the city’s new historic districts are suing the city because they say it wrongly gave permission to a neighboring property owner to replace his house with one that would be out of scale and character in their one-block enclave.

•Developers of the proposed Bezu/Blue Lotus condo tower in downtown St. Petersburg have filed two lawsuits against the city, seeking to overturn a vote against a planned 19-story, 18-unit tower. Downtown neighbors and preservationists have railed against the project.

•A group of residents is suing to stop their neighbors from turning their tree-shrouded, waterfront Driftwood neighborhood off 22nd Avenue S into a historic district.

More recently, property owners have hired a lawyer to fight the city’s plans to expand its list of properties considered potentially eligible for historic preservation. So far, said lawyer Kathryn Sole, a growing list of owners of more than $60 million in commercial and residential properties object to the plan.

“They are not just concerned, but outright infuriated. ... One, it doesn’t require their consent, so they adamantly oppose it. Second is the designation doesn’t seem to take into consideration the financial impact to the owner. A big one is outright confusion about what it means,” Sole said. “Another big one is the complete annihilation of building rights."

Dr. Gisela Garcia-Leyva has owned her two-story downtown building at 211 Fourth Ave. N since the early 1980s and uses it for her practice.

“It was built in 1890. I love my building,’’ she said. “I have put a lot of money to keep the flavor and the look. The city is telling me that I don’t have an option in the designation. To me, that is the most un-American thing that the government can do.”

“In this instance, they basically take your rights away as a property owner. Then your property values plummet the minute you are on that list. ... I believe the city is hypocritical. They have allowed homes more beautiful than mine to be destroyed.”

Things also are unsettled on the 700 block of 18th Avenue NE, which became a historic district almost two years ago. Richard McGinniss and Arnie Cummings, who own two of the 10 homes that make up the district, are furious about the designation and say it was an attempt to thwart their plans.

Cummings wants to build on his property at 715 18th Ave. NE, where the only structure is a garage apartment built in the 1920s. The main house was never built. Cummings has lived in the apartment since 2009 and says he wanted to build a family home that would also comfortably accommodate his 91-year-old mother.

McGinniss, a developer and president of Modern Tampa Bay Homes, wants to replace his Colonial Revival house at 736 18th Ave. NE with a new one. He says it's not economically feasible to restore what's there.

His first attempt to get plans approved for a new house were rejected by the Community Planning and Preservation Commission. A second submission was approved, but the neighborhood appealed to the City Council. The council voted 4-3 in favor of the appeal, but a supermajority vote had been required.

The dispute continues. Neighbors on either side of the proposed new house have filed a suit seeking to overturn the approval of McGinniss’ plans. Peter Belmont, a lawyer who also is vice president of Preserve the ‘Burg — which seeks “to keep St. Pete special” — is representing Elizabeth and David Skidmore and William “Britt” and Catherine Cobb in the suit against McGinniss and the city. They contend that McGinniss’ second set of plans were “substantially similar” to the first that had been denied and that city code requires that “a substantially similar” application should not be accepted for 18 months.

McGinniss said he is frustrated.

He said city staff worked with him and his architect to make sure that they understood and conformed to criteria required for the historic district. He added that the city also indicated during public meetings that the “myriad arguments the opposition presented” — including that the proposed house was too large and tall — were incorrect.

“It is revealing that the lawsuit does not claim that any of the key design criteria were not met,” McGinniss said. “Instead, they have invented a complaint that, in essence, states that after three-plus years, 50 plan revisions, five public hearings and $100,000 in legal bills, there has not been sufficient due process. This is nuts.”

“What the neighbors are concerned about is the character of the neighborhood,” Cobb said. “People are not opposed to new construction. They are just opposed to out-of-character, or out-of-scale construction.”

Cobb, a mechanical engineer, said he believes the house McGinniss wants to demolish is “very serviceable” and that “there are plenty of people who would lovingly restore it.”

But if McGinniss chooses to demolish it, “We don’t want the new construction to stick out and be out of character for the block," Cobb said. "We would like somebody to recognize it as a nice home, but not out of place with the 1920’s character of the block.”

Cummings, who has written the city's legal department to support McGinniss, has put his own plans on hold.

“I absolutely won’t build until I know if there’s a process you can get through. Were it not for this whole process going on, I probably would have been building there now. But the cloud that’s over the property means that I can’t in good conscience take the risk of getting into such a thing if the process is so onerous," he said.

Cobb praised Cummings for his “ beautifully restored” garage apartment and said neighbors don't object to him building another house on the lot. “We just don’t want him building out of scale or out of character,” he said.

The block is one of several new clusters of historic districts that have emerged in recent years.

“One of the motivating factors is that people love their neighborhoods and they love the character of their neighborhoods," Belmont said. "They’ve grown concerned when they see homes being torn down and replaced with buildings that do not seem to fit the neighborhood scale and character.”

The city is delaying its plan to update its list of potentially eligible properties for at least a few months.

Contact Waveney Ann Moore at [email protected] or (727) 892-2283. Follow @wmooretimes.

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