Monica Kile believes preservationists and local officials should use “more carrots and less sticks” to save St. Petersburg’s historic buildings from the wrecking ball.
Kile is a historian and tour guide with I Love the Burg. She highlighted the city’s 131-year-old history at the St. Petersburg Downtown Partnership’s Nov. 29 Developer’s Council Meeting.
Kile led a trolley tour of several historical sites and highlighted once-celebrated buildings demolished in the name of progress. Development stakeholders also walked through downtown neighborhoods bifurcated by interstates and past nearly century-old apartments eligible for tax credits.
“I’m not here for a fight,” Kile told attendees. “I’m not here for a lecture. I see my role with my services to this community is to share my direct knowledge of the city – and it’s deep, and I love it.”
She explained that city officials held a preservation summit during a development boom in the early 2000s. They created a list of historic buildings potentially eligible to become designated landmarks.
While good-natured, Kile said that list became problematic. The document created a 30-day window for residents to file complaints and prevent demolitions.
Kile said developers “hated” the list because it offered no benefits. Public notices created a deep divide between the various stakeholders, and she said the lack of incentives discouraged builders from preserving local properties.
“Trying to file an application to protect a historic building over the owner’s objection has not gone well,” she added. “And it hasn’t curried a lot of favor for the preservation community. So, yeah, there just needs to be more carrots.”
A state map shows St. Petersburg property owners received just three of 249 Federal Historic Tax Credit Investments from 2001 through 2022. Those included the Crystal Bay Wellness Center/Historic Sunset Hotel at 7401 Central Ave. and The Nelson at 430 5th St. N.
The Pennsylvania Hotel, now the Courtyard by Marriott St. Petersburg Downtown, had $5.7 million in qualified expenses. However, 43 Tampa projects received Historic Tax Credits in the same span.
Kile noted that buildings in St. Pete’s several historic districts have some demolition protections. While the national designation lacks that benefit, it does provide 20% tax credits on allowable renovations for five years.
That provides a lucrative incentive on multi-million-dollar projects. “We almost never do it in St. Pete,” Kile said. “I hope to see it done more in our community.”
The program excludes single-family homes. However, Kile said any old residence that generates income would qualify.
After the event, Kile stressed she doesn’t fear developers and growth like other stakeholders. “Many of the ones (developers) I’ve talked to appreciate the fact people are attracted to St. Pete because of its unique and distinct sense of place,” she said.
“I think you can help by showing them, ‘Hey, here is what we still got that is kind of cool,’” Kile continued. “And ‘Architecture (Mediterranean Revival) looks this way because we were trying to attract people here.’ If I can point that out to them and help them see it a little bit better – that’s my goal.”
She called the Tramor Cafeteria building, which recently housed the Hofbräuhaus German restaurant, the “perfect” candidate for historic tax credits. An upscale golf simulation complex will soon open in the 17,297-square-foot facility.
The building’s size will increase potential tax incentives, and Kile said the state preservation manager also hopes to see its owners apply for federal designation. While Florida is one of about 10 states without local credits, Kile remains optimistic a bill will pass in 2024 and further encourage owners to preserve smaller properties.
The city offers a Transfer of Development Rights (TDR) program that allows historic property owners to sell development potential if they agree to eschew demolition or expansion. Kile said those TDRs have recently risen in value because developers purchase them when building larger projects.
“So, as development increases in St. Pete, local landmarks like the Snell Arcade and the Flori-de-Leon are realizing a long-delayed benefit of preservation, and other local landmarks could do the same thing,” she said.
Kile stressed that preservationists and developers could better achieve seemingly separate goals if they work together. She also noted a preponderance of misunderstandings surrounding those objectives and related tactics.
“I think if everybody could trust that the other side actually has the city’s best intentions at heart, there could be better conversations,” Kile said. “On the whole, I really believe that both of those groups just want a vibrant, lively, attractive, comfortable and safe downtown.
“There’s just some misconceptions, and so there’s a lack of dialogue that, I think, has stymied efforts.”