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Under fire, St. Pete’s historic preservation ordinance may see reform

Megan Holmes

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Recently renewed outrage surrounding St. Petersburg’s historic preservation ordinance led to more than three hours of discussion and calls for reform Thursday morning, in a joint meeting of St. Petersburg City Council and the Community Planning and Preservation Committee (CPPC). Despite the lengthy discussion, changes to the ordinance moving forward remain cloudy.

The preservation ordinance was called into question following controversial third-party applications filed earlier this year for the historic designation of the Holiday Motel on 4th Street and the Doc Webb House in the Allendale Terrace neighborhood, despite owner objections. While both applications were ultimately rejected, the former by the Commission and the latter by the Council, those circumstances led to a six month moratorium on third-party designations, passed by Council in May. The moratorium is in effect until November.

St. Petersburg’s historic preservation ordinance allows applications for historic designation to come from: “the property owner, any resident of the City, or any organization in the City, including the City.” When the application is initiated by a party besides the property owner or the City of St. Petersburg, the application is considered a third-party designation.

This morning, Council members and Commission members alike raised concerns surrounding the intention of the ordinance and its current use. Among them, Commissioner Will Michaels, a local historian and former director of the St. Petersburg Museum of History, expressed concern over the City’s role in historic preservation. St. Petersburg’s Comprehensive Plan encourages the City to initiate at least three historic designation applications each year and to execute an annual review of the list of the properties that are potentially eligible for historic designation.

Michaels spoke to what he called a “fundamental tie between the city’s policy to encourage the city to initiate landmarks in our community and the third-party designation.” The City of St. Petersburg has not initiated a historic designation application since 2006, and as a result, Michaels argued, third-party designations have became more prevalent. He encouraged the City to take a more active role in historic preservation, to ease the pressure on organizations like Preserve the ‘Burg. “The third-party tool is an important one to have, but it is a tool of last resort to be used sparingly,” Michaels said.

Council Chair Charlie Gerdes echoed Michaels’ sentiments, calling for the operationalization of the City’s Comprehensive Plan, including city-initiated applications and an annual review of properties on the potentially eligible historic list.

According to City staff, of the 75 certified local governments (CLGs) in Florida, just 13 municipalities allow third-party designation. Among those cities, however, are peers like Tampa, Orlando and Miami. Unlike St. Petersburg, 44 municipalities allow their historic preservation commission to initiate applications, something Council members and Commission members alike found appealing.

Another widespread concern among members of both the City Council and the Commission was the adversarial nature surrounding third-party designation. Commission member Gwendolyn Reese, president of the African American Heritage Association, called for communication guidelines between third-party applicants and property owners, to keep property owners from being “blindsided” by the process and to encourage compromise before such issues come before the Commission or City Council.

In her Community Voices piece published last week, Preserve the ‘Burg’s Monica Kile explained that compromises gained through the third-party application process have led to some of the city’s best preservation successes.

“What is often lost in discussions of third party, or citizen-initiated, landmark applications are the successful compromises that have resulted between property owner and third party applicant,” said Kile. “The Crislip Arcade, the nexus of the incredible renaissance of the 600 Block of Central Avenue, was saved through discussions generated by a third-party landmark application. The application to landmark Crescent Height’s American Church of the Beatitudes generated discussions between the developer who purchased the property and the neighborhood association concerned with losing a landmark. The discussions resulted in the developer agreeing to renovate the historic church building as a residence, a project about to get underway.”

To encourage such compromise and protect property owners, Gerdes asked city staff to draft “conditions precedent” to a third-party application, including contacting the property owner, speaking to a member of the CPPC, and speaking to the Council member who represents the district the property is in. Currently, unlike other applications for variances and zoning changes, third-party applications do not require public participation. According to Liz Abernathy, director of planning and development services for the City of St. Petersburg, that change may come as soon as November.

Aside from the public participation requirement, next steps for reform to the preservation ordinance remain unclear, though City staff promised to bring proposed changes to the CPPC in the coming months.

 

Update: This article originally incorrectly stated that the property owners of Doc Webb House and Holiday Motel were not contacted prior to initiation of a third party application. The article has been updated to remove such language.

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