‘Historic’ gas station’s transformation clears first hurdle
Former St. Petersburg city council member and mayoral candidate Robert Blackmon’s dreams of converting a 97-year-old Standard Oil service station into a coffee shop are one step closer to becoming reality.
The boxy little building on the corner of 4th Street and 24th Avenue South was vandalized while he attended a Community Planning and Preservation Commission meeting (CPCC) Tuesday afternoon.
Nathaniel Jae, president of the Harbordale Neighborhood Association, notified Blackmon and the SPPD that someone threw a large piece of concrete at the station’s door, shattering its glass. Blackmon – unlike Jae – said he would like to assume the vandalism was coincidental.
“But it’s disappointing timing,” Blackmon said Wednesday. “More than anything, it goes to show that we need to have activation of property in the neighborhood. The more you have activated sites, the more you have a built-in neighborhood crime watch.”
The facility was a prominent landmark when it opened in 1926, and it served South St. Pete residents and travelers until 1962. A city Staff Report adds that “as such, it stands as a tangible reminder of the growing importance of the automobile industry to the young city’s economy.”
The CPCC agreed and unanimously approved Blackmon’s adaptive reuse site plan and applications for a Local Landmark designation and a code amendment. He bought and began rehabilitating the property in 2019 and hopes to repurpose it into a boutique drive-through café.
However, those plans encountered zoning roadblocks. While the site of one of St. Petersburg’s first gas stations abuts the Harbordale YMCA and is near other commercial uses, most of the immediate area consists of single-family homes.
The Local Landmark designation and adaptive reuse approvals allow Blackmon to skip a rezoning process. A drive-through is another matter.
Derek Kilborn, urban planning and historic preservation manager, told commissioners that the text amendment would allow the CPCC to consider a drive-through option for buildings that received a Local Landmark designation due to “their auto-dependent use.”
“It had a kind of transitory purpose, vehicles pulling in and pulling out,” Kilborn added. “In that sense, the characteristics were similar enough that we thought it merited this particular text amendment.”
Attorney Jessica Icerman, representing Blackmon, noted that the building only encompasses 325 square feet. She said, “It would be nearly impossible to operate a successful business in any way without a drive-through.”
Icerman added that the large front canopy would provide “an awesome place for outdoor seating.”
Several public speakers utilized the open forum to advocate for the project. Manny Leto, executive director of Preserve the ‘Burg, said restoring the Standard Oil station would reinforce the neighborhood’s character and support a local small business without “a wrecking ball or four-story parking deck.”
He also said city officials should grant Blackmon a 10-year ad valorem tax exemption. Sarah-Jane Vatelot, a local architect and board member of the Harbordale Neighborhood Association, lives behind the YMCA and said the project directly impacts her family.
She also relayed that the area is already benefiting from restoration efforts. Vatelot said crime has significantly decreased and – in what one could consider foreshadowing – attributed the reduction to the “broken window theory.”
The theory posits that if a broken window is left unattended, people will assume that no one cares about the area and commit more crimes.
“With all of the new development occurring throughout the city, we owe it to ourselves to preserve some of these oddities that remind us of where we came from,” Vatelot said.
Like some commissioners, one public speaker expressed her concerns about the proposed coffee shop’s drive-through. Celeste Davis said she is building a home near the service station and fears motorists would use residential streets to avoid an overly congested 4th Street South.
However, Blackmon noted that a grocer operates a block away, and a non-historic gas station is two blocks to the north. He pledged that the café would keep limited hours and that its small footprint wouldn’t attract an influx of new traffic.
“Three blocks to the south, you have 330 units going in,” Blackmon said. “There are more new units being built within five blocks of the location than there is square footage in the building.”
The CPCC unanimously approved Blackmon’s applications. The city council will ultimately decide the Local Landmark designation and ordinance amendment.
April 13, 2023at7:49 am
Anybody else find it interesting that the sole person speaking out against the project also happens to be a part of Ken Welch’s staff, a senior management position. The Director of Arts, Culture and Tourism. A position that logically would be supportive of keeping parts of St Pete from the past.
April 16, 2023at11:56 am
This is an exciting project and I’m looking forward to the prospect of a coffee shop near my neighborhood in Campbell Park that I can ride my bike to. Harbordale invited me to attend their neighborhood association meeting and I was able to see a presentation on this project. It’s everything you want in a St Pete project, a historic building, a local coffee shop and a neighborhood centric business. I appreciate and support the hard work of renovating an old building and it’s a labor of love. Thanks to the Robert Blackmon for his efforts on preserving this interesting building.