St. Petersburg’s historic preservation debate continues to simmer

The City Council and the Preservation Commission meet to try to iron out contentious issues, including the process that allows a third party to target a property.
The Holiday Motel on Fourth Street in St. Petersburg was among the properties involved in the hotly debated historic preservation discussion.  SCOTT KEELER  |   Times
The Holiday Motel on Fourth Street in St. Petersburg was among the properties involved in the hotly debated historic preservation discussion. SCOTT KEELER | Times
Published August 16

ST. PETERSBURG — The letters expressed anger and frustration with the city's historic preservation policies, coming from people stunned to learn that officials could arbitrarily designate their properties historic to those seething that fellow residents could determine what could happen to their homes.

Recent high profile fights have included efforts by preservationists to save individual properties such as the Doc Webb house in the Allendale neighborhood and the Holiday Motel on Fourth Street. Entire neighborhoods have also become embroiled in disagreements about whether they should become local landmark districts.

RELATED STORY: St. Pete’s Holiday Motel, known for its colorful doors, will be demolished

City officials began addressing the escalating tension last week, but little has been resolved. A six-month moratorium against third-party historic designations — except for those brought by the city itself — will remain in place until November. After then, though, it appears that the contentious third-party designation policy will continue, but with some tempering. The city's listing of properties considered potentially eligible for historic designation also will see some modification.

The meeting last week of the City Council and the Community Planning and Preservation Commission came at the request of Council member Amy Foster "to discuss potential changes" to the preservation ordinance, with special focus on third-party designation and the city's potentially eligible list. During the discussion, council members and commissioners seemed to favor some type of appeal system for those on the list.

RELATED STORY: ‘Doc Webb’ House cleared for demolition after St. Pete City Council rejects historic status

Michelle Harris and Eduardo Zavala, who are fighting the landmark status of their Driftwood neighborhood, say the city's historic designation is broken. "More often than not, the process is being manipulated by individuals or groups of individuals whose goal is to control the property of others," they said in a letter to the city. "Look at what is going on throughout the city: lawsuit after lawsuit, abusive behavior between neighbors, and countless hours of argument, review, and revisiting by city bodies. How much taxpayer money would be saved by ending these divisive processes?"

City officials have acknowledged the rising tension between preservation and growth.

"There's a lot of redevelopment pressure in our historic neighborhoods," Derek Kilborn, manager in the city's urban planning and historic preservation division, said during his presentation last week. He noted that since Roser Park became the city's first National Register Historic District in 1998 — the others are Kenwood, North Shore, Round Lake and Downtown St. Petersburg — 189 of the historic districts' contributing structures have been demolished.

Additionally, of St. Petersburg's 86,207 properties, 720 are designated as local landmarks or located in a local historic district. By comparison, Tampa, with 117,817 properties, has 4,214 that are designated as local landmarks, are located in a local historic district, or are part of a multiple property designation, meaning they belong to a grouping around a particular theme.

Commissioner Will Michaels said he believed that if the city itself designated more local landmarks, it would lessen the dispute that results from third-party, owner-objected designations.

"Because of a lack of a plan, great resort is made to third-party, owner-opposed landmark applications and consequently the process is characterized by significantly greater conflict than need be the case," he wrote in a letter distributed to his colleagues.

Lawyer Michael Labbee, who is representing residents fighting Driftwood's landmark status, said any discussion about third-party designation "must include consideration" of the historic district category.

Richard McGinniss, a developer, and Arnold Cummings, who opposed the historic designation of their 18th Avenue NE block, both expressed concerns about the process before the meeting. McGinniss described "any involuntary historic designation," whether by block or individually, as "flawed and subject to abuse by others who push their self interest."

Council chair Charlie Gerdes suggested that city-initiated actions would "take the pressure off" individual, third-party designations. Council member Brandi Gabbard, a Realtor, would like to remove the public from the process altogether in order to lessen the rancor that pervades such actions.

But Council member Darden Rice pointed to successful third-party efforts such as the saving of the American Baptist Church of the Beatitudes' sanctuary, which was initiated by the Crescent Heights Neighborhood Association and subsequently agreed to by developer Jason Suarez. She spoke of other efforts and mentioned Preserve the 'Burg — an organization that has engendered both admiration and dislike — that is behind the preservation of landmarks such as the Vinoy and Crislip Arcade on Central Avenue.

Rice said she doesn't want to tinker with the process. "Let's get smarter with the incentives" to encourage preservation, she said.

"The third-party applications are happening in large part because we're not doing our part," Council member Gina Driscoll said. "When we leave it up to individuals, you have neighbor versus neighbor. ...We want a better way forward."

"I believe that third-party applications should be a last and rare resort," Gerdes said, going on to suggest ways in which the process might be made less contentious.

Alon and Susie Goren of 411 Cordova Blvd. NE were among those who wrote to express dismay at discovering that their home had been placed on the potentially eligible list. Property owners have complained that their property rights are being violated and spoken of potential financial loss. The city views the list as a way to protect historic properties from demolition. An application for a demolition permit automatically means a 30-day stay for a property on the list. Further, if a third-party asks that the property be designated historic, demolition would be put on hold pending results of that request.

Commissioner Gwendolyn Reese, who expressed concern about the potentially eligible list, said she would like buyers to know whether a property they plan to purchase is on the controversial list.

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

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