Peter Belmont, longtime preservation activist in the City of St. Petersburg, answers some of your questions about the nuances of historic preservation.
Preserve the ‘Burg often gets questions about what can the City offer for help with preservation concerns and where to go within the City to get answers to preservation questions. The City has a small historic preservation staff, a historic preservation commission and a myriad of online resources for those seeking help and answers to their questions. We know it’s not always easy to understand what to look for or who to ask - even the historic preservation info on the city’s website is a bit counter-intuitive to find (historic preservation is not listed under city departments). Read on and hopefully you will have your answer for the what’s what and the who’s who and learn about how to find the fun stuff!
From the big picture perspective, the city has a Division of Urban Planning and Historic Preservation, managed by long time staff member Derek Kilborn and a historic preservation commission formally titled the Community Planning and Preservation Commission (“CPPC”). It’s a board composed of non-compensated community members appointed by the Mayor and approved by City Council. Among its more important responsibilities, the CPPC reviews all landmark applications in a public hearing format and recommends to city council whether the application should be approved. The Division includes two professional historic preservationists, Laura Duvekot and Kelly Perkins. Click here for the contact list with phone number & email for Derek and his staff.
City preservation staff responsibilities include the administration of a number of preservation programs, including those for Landmarks; Monuments and Markers; Ad Valorem Tax (“AVT”) Exemptions; and for Transfer of Development Rights (“TDR’s”). Staff also review all Certificates of Appropriateness (“COA’s”) for changes affecting landmark properties [including alterations, additions or demolitions] and review nominations to the National Register of Historic Places. Finally, staff assists the CPPC and aids the public with historical research, rehabilitation and economic incentive questions. This means that Laura and Kelly are the right people to contact if you are thinking about landmarking your property or perhaps you and your neighbors are wondering about how a neighborhood becomes a historic district. It also means if you own a landmark property and are considering making exterior changes to it, Laura and Kelly are the resource to turn to for questions on what is required, what is subject to staff approval or what is subject to CPPC public hearing and approval.
But what about the fun stuff - like what funky, old neon signs or “legacy” businesses (50+ years old) still exist in St. Pete, what self-guided preservation tours are available or how to research your home’s history? All of this info can be found on the city’s website! To get you started, a hint about how the city’s website is organized – most pages are set up so the page not only provides information on a particular subject but the left side of the page also offers a menu of “clickable” options for more information. For example, opening the historic preservation page (consider “bookmarking ” this page for future reference) has on the left-hand side options for more information on historic resources, historic preservation documents, and historic research library.
To further become familiar with the information available from the historic preservation page, click from the options on the left-side of the page, “historic resources”. When this page opens, you will see on the page’s main body two options: a box taking you to the historic preservation map or a box taking you to the design guidelines booklet (info about recognized architectural styles prevalent throughout the City, helpful when planning maintenance or rehabilitation of historic properties).
The map is an informative and largely unknown tool that one could spend hours using! The map allows one to select (add or exclude) map layers. Each layer offers information about a particular historic resource such as designated landmarks, National Register listed properties or historic districts. Additional layers add to the map information on historic signage, legacy businesses and brick streets or hex block sidewalks. The layers use color coded boxes or highlighting. For example, clicking on the historic signage layer will place on the map small colored boxes locating each commercial sign included in the city’s historic sign survey - click on a box and a window will open with the address and name of the sign. Before trying out the map you may want to read some simple about using it: historic map directions.pdf
What other information is accessible from the historic resource webpage? The drop down menu on the left-hand side of the page offers links to a chronological listing (thru 2017) of locally designated (landmark) properties; self-guided tours you can avail yourself of, including the African American Heritage Trail and the Walk St. Pete Florida Stories audio tour; the City’s historic sign booklet, complete with photos of those signs still existing as well as some of the signs that have been lost; a list of 65 markers and monuments located within the city (check it out to see how many you can recognize!); information about the city’s “traditional” streetscapes consisting of brick streets, hex block sidewalks granite curbing and mature trees (did you know many of the city’s remaining traditional streetscape elements are protected?); and a list of the city’s legacy businesses, including a link to tell the city about other legacy businesses that may have been overlooked. All in all, there is a lot of easily accessible information about the unique features that make St. Petersburg special!
To round out the city’s historic preservation website resources, there are two additional options that can be opened from the choices on the left-side of the historic resource webpage, “historic preservation documents” and “historic research library”. The documents page includes links to the city’s historic preservation ordinance (St. Petersburg Historic and Archaeological Preservation Overlay) and to the state preservation plan; local and Federal design guidelines for historic properties; application forms for designation and alterations to designated properties; and documents related to local preservation incentives.
Opening the historic research library page offers a link to the Resource and Research Guide. The Guide offers information about how to research your home’s history and is packed with links to local historic preservation resources, including publications about St. Petersburg history, photo & video collections and biographies of key individuals from St. Petersburg’s history.
Would we be St. Pete without the buildings that makes us special? Can you imagine downtown without the funky Crislip Arcade in Central Avenue’s 600 Block or without First Block and the city’s most historic building—the Detroit Hotel, built by the city founders in 1888? What about Fourth Street without the iconic Sunken Gardens or 22nd Street without Mercy Hospital or the Manhattan Casino? Would St. Pete be the same without these historic pieces to our built environment?
Maintaining a city’s sense of place doesn’t occur just by happenstance. It happens in cities that are proud of and recognize their heritage and have implemented a historic preservation program while prioritizing a steady, modest scale to the developed landscape and new construction.
In a boom period, not only is their loss conceivable but each of these special places faced various types of demolition threats in the not-too-distant past. Today, all are preserved and are proudly being reused. All were preserved, in part, as a result of third-party landmark applications.
Third-party applications and landmark designations are part of the lingo and preservation program process. At times, the process creates controversy but would we be special without it?
A third-party landmark application is an application for landmark designation by a person or organization who is not the building's property owner, such as Preserve the 'Burg, a neighborhood association, or even the City. Landmark designation is a St. Petersburg (not state or national) classification for properties having historical, architectural or cultural significance and more particularly meeting the standards set forth in St. Petersburg’s historic preservation ordinance.
Taking into consideration that third-party applications are not owner initiated, city council has imposed for them an enhanced application and approval process. This process requires super-majority council approval (6 of 8 members), applicant meetings with the property owner and council member in whose district the property is located, and added notice requirements.
All landmarks are subject to a review process, known as a certificate of appropriateness or “COA”, prior to exterior alteration, demolition or new construction. The COA process is in part designed to discourage demolition of landmarks and to encourage their reuse. COA review takes place before the city’s Community Planning and Preservation Commission (“CPPC”) and in some cases in front of City Council. A public hearing is conducted and the decision makers must apply the criteria set forth in the historic preservation ordinance to determine if the COA should be approved. Landmarks can also qualify for tax incentives and building code flexibility.
In 1998 the Historic Old Northeast Neighborhood Association felt that Sunken Gardens was so important to their neighborhood that they submitted an owner-objected landmark application for it, paving the way for the City’s purchase of the iconic attraction and its rejuvenation and transformation into the jewel we see today.
More than twenty years earlier, the fate of the historic Mercy Hospital was at issue and community groups joined together, including PTB and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, to seek an owner-objected designation for the Hospital building. It had served as the primary care facility for African Americans from 1923 to 1966. The landmark effort succeeded and today the Hospital continues to provide community based health care.
In 2017, the Crescent Heights Neighborhood Association felt similarly regarding their neighborhood’s historic Church of the Beatitudes (corner of 28th Ave. N. & 8th St.), submitting an owner-objected landmark application, prompting a developer who had recently purchased the historic church building to reconsider his plan to tear it down. The church building is being converted into a unique single-family residence.
Any controversy regarding the applications noted above, including the propriety of a “third-party” seeking landmark designation over owner objection, are largely forgotten. Now, these places seem like success stories—character defining landmarks whose preservation is even lauded in national magazines by travel writers seeking a sense of place. At the time of application, these properties were in danger because their owners weren't able to see the value of preserving the spaces as-is compared to the potential of new construction on the site.
It should be noted while third-party owner objected applications may stand out because of the debate that can ensue, they are the exception rather than the rule. After a lengthy hearing over PTB’s owner-objected Detroit Hotel landmark application in 2010, city preservation staff noted that the City’s allowance for such applications was in line with other local government preservation programs, Tampa being one nearby example. In 2015, staff reported, of the 106 local landmarks in St. Petersburg, only nine were designated over owner objection and that there had only been three additional owner objected applications denied by City Council.
It takes work to keep St. Petersburg special, even more so as developers from other places “discover” our sense of place. If the ‘Burg is to remain special, our significant historical, architectural and cultural resources need to be recognized. Having a third-party landmark designation process is one piece to the puzzle in so doing.
Preserve the ‘Burg is often asked if there are benefits to a property being designated historic, either as a local landmark or listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The answer is a resounding yes! And the benefits typically apply whether the building is individually listed or listed as a contributing building to a historic district. The benefits can range from financial incentives, in the form of tax credits or reduced property taxes, to flexibility in the application of zoning and land use provisions, to the pride an owner receives in having the historic, architectural or cultural value of their property recognized. Below, I will identify and briefly describe some of these benefits.
Ad Valorem Tax (“AVT”) Exemption In 1992, Florida's constitution was amended to allow local governments the option of offering an ad valorem tax exemption on improvements to historic properties. Both St. Pete and Pinellas County provide for this exemption meaning that eligible property owners will not see increases to their city or county property taxes (exclusive of school board taxes) for ten years as a result of renovations undertaken consistent with historic design standards. At the end of the ten year tax increase abatement period, the property tax value reverts to that based upon the the actual asessed property value. Numerous property owners have taken advantage of this benefit including homeowners, downtown properties like the Kress Building and the Green/Richman Arcade and others like the owner of the Mecca Apartments (pictured after renovation). Click here to read its AVT staff report.
Federal Rehabilitation Tax Credit – This benefit can be used with National Register income producing properties (i.e., commercial or residential rental). It provides for a direct dollar for dollar reduction in the amount of income taxes owed up to 20% of the qualifying cost of the rehabilitation. The credit has been recognized as one of the nation's most successful and cost-effective community revitalization programs, having leveraged over $102 billion in private investment while preserving more than 45,000 historic properties since 1976. Click here to read the latest report about the impact of the Federal tax credit and here to see a listing of Florida tax credit projects, including the Pennsylvania and Sunset Hotels in St. Petersburg.
Preservation or Facade Easement – Placing an easement on a building is a little known tool that can bring substantial tax savings to historic property owners. The easement is a voluntary legal agreement that permanently protects an historic property. Through the easement, a property owner places restrictions on the development of or changes to the historic property’s exterior, then transfers these restrictions to a preservation or conservation organization. An easement has been placed upon the downtown Snell Building (pictured). PTB is presently developing an easement program to encourage more historic property owners to use this tool and to allow PTB to be a potential recipient of the easements. Click here to read more about easements.
Code Flexibility - The City and Florida building codes allow for flexibility in their application to historic buildings. Thus, historic structures that do not strictly comply with the code can still be approved where it is shown that the purpose of the code provision has been addressed and no hazard will be created or allowed to continue. One local code requirement often at issue when reusing historic buildings is parking. Less than the minimum number of parking spaces otherwise required by code can be allowed for designated historic property renovations.
Transfer of Development Rights (TDR's) - Downtown designated landmarks can sell their “excess” development rights to a downtown development project needing an FAR bonus to allow for increased intensity (size). A required condition of the transfer is that the local landmark will be retained. Until the recent construction boom, this preservation benefit largely went unused but new buildings like ONE and the proposed 400 Central development are purchasing or have purchased historic development rights.
Downtown Historic Rehabilitation Grant Program – This is a new city grant program (started 2019) which provides grants up to $250,000 to locally designated buildings within the boundaries of downtown’s Intown Redevelopment area. The City has allocated a total of $5 million to the grant program which is expected to offer grants for a five year period. Pictured is the historic State Theatre, now the "Floridian Social Club" which received a grant.
For More Information - There are numerous resources available discussing the benefits of designation, particularly from the National Trust for Historic Preservation and from Place Economics, a private sector firm specializing in the analysis of the economic impacts of historic preservation. The firm has analyzed the impacts of preservation on numerous cities. You might want to look at their compilation of this information in, Twenty-four Reasons Historic Preservation is Good for Your Community. St. Petersburg has a simple listing that summarizes incentives for historic properties that you can click here to access.
If a building could talk, one would certainly want to sit down with the Snell building, anticipating a fascinating and unique conversation. The hard part would be how to choose the topics to fit into a single conversation! Should the conversation include how the Snell managed to rise in 1928 as the bust was taking over St. Petersburg, and include stories about the building’s original owner/developer, C. Perry Snell, whose second career as a developer raised the value of more property on the Pinellas Peninsula than any other individual or group over a nearly forty year time span? Or, one could easily spend a day discussing the Snell’s architect, Richard Kiehnel, and the architectural style and detailing he chose, including the arcade that banker Hubert Rutland closed off after he purchased the building in 1943! Finally, the Snell could explain to you how today’s owners have used existing preservation incentives to again make the building one of the downtown stars and a building fit for modern times.
It will be interesting to see which of the various construction booms future historians will choose as the most transformative for St. Petersburg. Will it be the booming 1920’s when St. Pete transformed itself from small town to a leading tourist destination? Will it be the booming post World War II era when concrete block “suburban” homes spread across much of the city’s vacant land? Or, will it be the present era as the city has found itself taking center stage with rising popularity? A quick look back will help set the stage for understanding the Snell Buildings place in St. Petersburg’s development.
In 1920, St. Petersburg was still more or less a small town, its population pegged at 14,000 by the U.S. Census. By the mid’20’s the boom was in full force, the city’s growth was exploding and the city’s future never looked brighter, in part thanks to the marketing genius of city publicist John Lodwick. He tirelessly promoted the city using the themes of sunshine, bathing beauties and sports.
Perry Snell (far left in picture), a successful pharmacist from Bowling Green, Kentucky came to St. Petersburg for his honeymoon (with his first of several wives) in 1899. By 1904, they had moved permanently to St. Petersburg and he started a second career developing his new home city. Snell was an extensive world traveler; in Europe he gathered bits and pieces of ideas, artwork and artifacts for use in his buildings. In 1925, he planned Snell Isle as a prestigious series of homes in Spanish and Italian architectural style. Suddenly, however, by the end of 1925, the economy had turned and another chapter of boom-to-bust was starting, leaving much of the plan for Snell Isle incomplete. Snell, however, was intent on constructing an edifice, the “Snell Building” and it became the last significant building constructed downtown before the bust effectively ended city growth.
Construction of the “Snell” began in late spring 1928, with the stand-out feature of a single, ornate tower crowning the building. Few realize the original plans called for two towers and that the building foundation was designed with this in mind. The Depression, however, stopped the second tower from being built. Another significant feature, one that was common downtown at that time, was the arcade that stretched through the building from Central Avenue to the Open Air Post Office (1916). In the Arcade alone, there must have been twenty-five different tile designs used, many of which Snell brought from Europe and were mixed and matched without any sense of order or plan.
Overall, the building epitomizes the highly ornate Mediterranean Revival Style with Spanish influence associated with its prominent architect, Richard Kiehnel. Locally, he also designed the Rolyat Hotel, now Stetson School of Law. Some say Louis Sullivan created the skyscraper so Mr. Kiehnel could tack on his Spanish influence, while others suggest it was because of Kiehnel's influence that this style became characteristic in the early part of the 20th century for Central and South Florida.
The Snell contains probably every architectural detail that Spanish Architecture ever contained, from brackets supporting quadrafoiled arches to ornate wrought iron and moorish gothic windows . Materials include pink etowah marble from Georgia, keystone along the exterior façade from the Florida Keys and terra-cotta glazed tile. Few other buildings in St. Petersburg used terra-cotta as the skin of the building. The building also has a large copper canopy shading the sidewalks and, most remarkably for St. Petersburg, a basement. Shortly after construction started, it was believed an underground spring was breached, flooding the excavation and resulting in workers being called to the scene at 3 A.M. The original basement floor was poured two feet below the water table, a fact that would result in future and ongoing moisture problems.
For those who have lived in St. Petersburg during bygone decades, the Rutland name is sure to sound familiar. Hubert Rutland first got involved with banking in 1955, eventually leading to the creation of Rutland Bank. The Rutland family, dating from the 1920’s, operated downtown’s Rutland Department Store (located for many decades at the corner of Central Ave. & 5th St.). Rutland purchased the Snell building in 1943 and in 1950, amazingly, he decided to close off, partially demolish and construct a new floor at mid-level in the arcade. Luckily, he did little other work or maintenance to the building that would result in a loss of its other significant historic features. In 1980, Rutland sold an option for the building to an investor group headed by Robert B. Roberts, Jr. who, in turn, sold it to John Galbraith of Securities Fund Management, Inc. Shortly thereafter, with the assistance of local architect Charlie Canerday, Galbraith began restoring the building at a cost of approximately $2.5 million. The renovations included reopening the arcade and converting the building to offices.
Beginning in 2003, the Snell was again renovated and converted into 12 residential condos on its upper floors and ground level retail and basement office spaces. Today, it remains as one of downtown’s most desirable and unique residential addresses. As a result of its placement on the National Register of Historic Places in 1982 (after being been designated as among the first of St. Petersburg’s local landmarks in 1986 )the Snell became eligible to use incentives from the historic preservation “tool box”, a way to help make the numbers “work” and to encourage reuse of historic buildings.
The St. Petersburg preservation program provides for the transfer of development rights (“TDR’s”) for locally or nationally designated historic buildings. TDR’s can be sold by the historic building owner on the private market to developers who wish to use the development “bonuses” to allow for increased building intensity for their proposed project. “ONE”, the new condo high rise on 1st Street, is one example of a downtown building that used the historic TDR program.
Another tool is a preservation easement. The owner of the historic building typically donates an easement for the building’s exterior façade to a historic preservation non-profit, meaning the non-profit will act as a check on any proposed changes to a building’s significant exterior historic features. In return, the historic building owner may receive a tax deduction and a lower tax assessment as the future development potential of the property is limited by the easement. More information about preservation incentives can be found by clicking here.
Without a doubt the question we hear the most often at PTB is: What’s going on with the old YMCA on 2nd Avenue South and 5th Street?
Despite the construction boom of the past several years, both with new construction and the renovation of historic buildings, little progress has been made on bringing the historic YMCA building back to life. Since 2014 when the present owner purchased it, he has repeatedly said that work would begin soon to convert the Historic Y into a boutique hotel, yet our community still waits. In some ways the situation harkens back several decades to the long, drawn-out story of bringing the Vinoy Hotel back to life. Many promises were made (and broken) about how and when the historic hotel would be renovated. Today the Vinoy is once again a landmark beauty on the waterfront. Let us be optimistic that eventually the historic “Y” will also be a building that helps keep St. Petersburg special!
The historic YMCA building is located downtown at the corner of 5th Street and 2nd Avenue South. Currently vacant, it sits on the same block as the historic Tramor Cafeteria that fronts 4th Street and has been most recently used as the Hofbrauhaus. Construction began on the YMCA building in 1925. It was one of the city's first community funded projects supported with $550,000 in donations. The building included a gymnasium with a running track suspended from the ceiling, lobbies for boys and men, club rooms, a cafeteria, facilities for boxing and wrestling, and a large swimming pool in the basement. (Still today, one can sneak a peek thru the windows located just above the 2nd Avenue sidewalk and catch a glimpse of the now empty swimming pool.) On the building’s third and fourth floors were 54 dormitory rooms that provided inexpensive lodging for men.
The YMCA closed the building’s residential program in 1989; its recreational facilities remained open until the YMCA relocated to a new building near Central Plaza in 2001. Subsequently, the historic YMCA building was sold several times. In 2005, much of the interior was demolished (some significant interior features still remain) in preparation for a condo conversion that failed to move forward. The last sale was for approximately 1.5 million dollars to an entity managed by Nick Ekonomou, a former FSU football star from Miami.
Current Owner’s Stated Plans
Ekonomou has stated on a number of occasions that he intends to convert the building into a boutique hotel and possibly add a new building on a small portion of the parcel between the historic building and the adjacent former St. Petersburg Times building. A number of years ago he told a Tampa Bay Times reporter that his plans were being delayed because his contractor had lost his license. Most recently, in a June 2020, Tampa Bay Times article he was quoted as saying the coronavirus has “put back the hospitality business.” Several years ago, the City started code enforcement action in an effort to ensure the building was not further deteriorating.
The City has affirmatively acted to address parking for the historic building which had been identified as an issue in successfully reusing the building. In 2012 City Council agreed to a partial street vacation for a portion of the streetscape around the building so it could be used for exclusive parking for the building’s users rather than for the public at large.
The property was determined eligible for listing in the National Register of Historic Places in 1985 and listed as a local St. Petersburg landmark in 1991. It was deemed significant for its architecture (an excellent example of the Mediterranean Revival style), as one of the early works associated with local architect Archie Parish, and for having been built by local contractors Edward S. Moore and Sons.
As a designated local landmark, demolition cannot proceed without issuance of a certificate of appropriateness ("COA") for demolition. To be entitled to such a COA, the owner/applicant must establish that no reasonable beneficial use can be made of the property. A COA application for demolition was made in 2012, city staff recommended denial, and ultimately the application was withdrawn.
In being declared eligible for the National Register, significant tax credits are available for building renovation. Let us hope the owner of the historic “Y” takes advantage of those tax credits to move forward with building renovation or offers the building to another buyer who will do so and the question “what is going on with the YMCA building” will no longer need be asked!
A reader posed the question: "Peter, is there a difference between “National Register” and “Local Register” designation of historic properties?
And Peter answered: "Yes! National and Local Listing of Historic Properties differ, and it is an important distinction! "
Listing a historic property in either the National Register or the Local Register encourages its reuse and preservation, and notes the property as an important touchstone of our national or local community’s shared heritage. But there are significant differences to the effects of national and local listing. This is primarily because national listing, unlike local listing, does not include regulatory review for alterations and demolitions of the listed property (unless a federally funded or permitted project like an interstate highway expansion is involved.)
The National Register of Historic Places, established in 1966, is overseen by the National Park Service. The National Register includes more than 95,000 properties that have been listed for their significance in American history, architecture, art, archeology, engineering, and culture. In St. Petersburg, 23 individual properties and 5 historic districts are listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
For most homeowners, National Register listing for their home has little impact other than offering honorary recognition of the historic, archaeological or cultural significance of the property. In St. Petersburg, a National Register property which is not also locally listed, may be demolished without review just as any other non-historic property. To discourage demolition of a listed property, National Register listing allows a significant portion of the historic building’s renovation costs to be returned to the owner or developer in the form of a tax credit, but only for income producing properties . In Florida, between 2002 and 2015, there were 163 Historic Tax Credit projects completed, resulting in the creation of more than 15,000 jobs and in excess of 1 billion dollars spent in development costs.
Like the majority of local governments, St. Petersburg has adopted a local historic preservation ordinance. It provides for creation of a local historic preservation commission, a local listing (landmark) process for individual properties and districts, and a review process for proposed exterior alterations or demolition of listed buildings. City Council renders the final decision on landmark applications. The city made its first local designation in 1986; today, the city has nearly 120 individually listed properties and ten historic districts.
To find which properties in St. Petersburg are either listed locally or on the National Register, check out the city’s historic preservation map (hint, be sure to use the “layer list” tool at the top of the map). Go to: https://egis.stpete.org/portal/apps/webappviewer/index.html?id=568fd49870734fc6aa2fd76fac573988
To find out more about the National Register, go to: https://www.nps.gov/subjects/nationalregister/what-is-the-national-register.htm
To find out more about the St. Petersburg Register of historic properties, go to: http://www.stpete.org/history_and_preservation/docs/St-Petersburg-Register-of-Historic-Places.pdf
To find out more about the process for creating local historic districts, go to:
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