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St. Petersburg Preservation wants to keep ‘First Block’ special

in The Bay and the 'Burg/Top Headlines by

Way back in 1888, St. Petersburg’s first boom began with the coming of the Orange Belt Railroad and construction of the Dakota Hotel.

As the city grew, so did the 200 block of First Avenue N. and then the rest of the city. Today, most of the historic buildings on that block remain in active use as an architecturally unique reminder of St. Petersburg’s past.

But a move to declare what’s now known as “First Block” as a historic district failed to pass the St. Petersburg City Council. The council deadlocked 4-4, which essentially denied the application because of a parliamentary rule saying that motions fail if the vote ties.

Now, the block is in jeopardy because the owners have submitted a plan to build what opponents have called “a monster tower” in the middle of the block. It’s a proposal the St. Petersburg Preservation Society opposes to help preserve First Block as one of the things that make St. Pete special. They’d like to have the city designate the block as a local landmark.

“There’s a feeling in St. Pete that the block’s special,” said Peter Belmont, vice president of St. Petersburg Preservation.

Belmont noted many of the city’s historic buildings are being lost as developers come in and tear down older buildings to make way for towers. The end effect if nothing is done to preserve the historic buildings could be to make St. Petersburg look like any other city with large towers that have replaced the charm and inviting atmosphere of older buildings.

“We have a downtown that attracts people because of the scale,” Belmont said. If those buildings aren’t protected, “you wake up one day and say, ‘What happened?’ Suddenly you realize you’re not so special anymore.”

Right now, Belmont said, the preservation society is in a kind of wait-and-see mode. They’re expecting that the tower proposal could come before the City Council in January. Until then, they’re urging people who believe the block should be protected and designated a local landmark to lobby council members for that.

The society’s website lists reasons First Block — the heart and soul of downtown — is significant and worth protecting:

— It is the oldest and most significant block in the city and the location for some of the city’s earliest businesses

—- Most of the buildings within the block are pre-1910 structures, some of the city’s oldest

— Only one historic structure on the block has been lost (building at First Avenue N. and Third Street, which was demolished in 1966).

— All other structures retain excellent historic integrity. They are excellent examples of early 20th century commercial architecture.

— The buildings are associated with city founders and pioneers and were designed and built by prominent architects and contractor/developers.

The website also lists the benefits of designating the block as a local landmark:

— It minimizes potential for demolitions or alterations that would significantly harm the block’s historic and cohesive sense of identity.

— It recognizes and showcases the significance of the block.

— It provides tax incentives for property owners within the block.

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