What is Demolition Review and Does it Happen in St. Petersburg?

Preserve the 'Burg is often asked if something could have been done to prevent a building demolition or how does one find out if a building is to be demolished. Cities can require notice and opportunities to review demolition applications. Many cities have a comprehensive process in place to do so but St. Petersburg only provides notice and review in a small number of circumstances. Read on to find out what demolition review is about and how St. Pete can do better!

What is Demolition Review - One of the tools found in many local government “toolboxes” for protecting historic buildings is a demolition review ordinance. Such an ordinance offers a legal tool and safety net for historic resources by preventing buildings worthy of preservation from being inadvertently demolished without notice or assessment. In St. Petersburg, and other cities lacking comprehensive demolition review, demolition permits are issued without public notice and without review of the potential historic or architectural significance of the building.

Demolition review does not necessarily prevent demolition of significant resources, rather, it allows a building’s historic significance to be assessed prior to demolition. The ordinance can encourage reuse of significant historic buildings by providing for further demolition delay to allow for landmark designation and/or exploration of preservation solutions ranging from plans for historic building reuse to relocating the building.

The rubble of a demolition

Why Do Communities Adopt Demolition Review Procedures - Demolition review procedures help cities maintain their sense of place by discouraging the demolition of historically significant buildings. Given the vast number of older buildings, it is virtually impossible for communities to identify in advance, let alone designate as local landmarks, all of its significant buildings. A process for demolition review recognizes this fact and minimizes the number of placemaking buildings that would otherwise fall through the cracks of local historic review.

What is Important to Consider in Adopting a Demolition Review Ordinance -
Demolition review laws vary, including the types and number of buildings requiring review, who conducts the review, the time period provided for review, and how demolition review relates to the city’s historic preservation program. Among the considerations that a local government should address in developing a demolition review requirement are:

A building in the process of being demolished

Having an efficient process - ensuring that permits for non-significant buildings are not held up unnecessarily and do not require an inordinate staff time to process;
Having resources in place to assist applicants and/or permitting officials determine the age and significance of buildings subject to review – minimize the “guesswork” in the process;
Ensuring the type of buildings subject to review are inclusive enough so that the goal of discouraging the loss of significant historic resources is achieved - more rather than fewer older buildings should be subject to review;
Having adequate notice requirements - the public cannot respond to demolition threats unless the threat is known;
Having an adequate delay period - it takes time to determine if there are feasible alternatives to demolition, particularly with non-cooperative owners;
Giving the preservation commission the necessary tools to negotiate a solution - preservation solutions are more likely to be forthcoming when incentives are combined with regulatory oversight (carrot & stick);
Enabling landmark designation of building subject to review where warranted – the process must work, giving recognition to the interests of owners, local government and the community.
Enforcement – the penalties must be adequate to ensure compliance and city administration and elected officials must be supportive of staff taking necessary enforcement action.

What Demolition Review Provisions Have Been Adopted in St. Petersburg -

  • Designated local landmarks - Demolition review in accord with the City’s preservation ordinance. However, designated landmarks comprise an extremely small inventory of buildings and just a fraction of the City’s historically significant buildings.
  • Potentially Eligible List of local landmarks (“PEL”) - Buildings on the PEL are subject to notice and a 30 day hold on issuance of a demolition permit. No staff assessment of the significance of the building is required during the hold. A landmark application can be submitted during the hold.

Note: The PEL was adopted in 2006 as an initiative of Mayor Rick Baker. Upon adoption, only 55 buildings were included on the PEL, most within downtown. Since its adoption, ten of the PEL buildings have been designated as landmarks, one was denied landmark designation and five buildings have been demolished. The City has a Comprehensive Plan policy that dates to 2008 mandating annual updates to the PEL. Despite the Comprehensive Plan’s clear directive, the City has never updated the PEL. City Council has scheduled a discussion on the PEL in August, 2021.

  • Downtown buildings – Buildings located on downtown zoned parcels may not be demolished until a complete application for building permits has been submitted. The intent of this requirement is to minimize the number of vacant downtown lots that would occur when demolition would otherwise proceed before plans are ready for new construction.
An aerial view of a building being demolished

What Should St. Petersburg do Next - Keeping St. Petersburg special is important to the city’ ongoing economic success but it doesn’t happen without the city having the tools in place to ensure that future development is sustainable and sensitive to its surrounding neighborhood. One of those tools has been adopted – now it needs to be used! St. Petersburg needs to follow its Comprehensive Plan requirement requiring annual updating of the PEL. More importantly, St. Petersburg needs to adopt a comprehensive and effective demolition review ordinance. If the city fails to do so, more and more historic, architectural, and culturally significant buildings contributing to St. Petersburg’s sense of place will be demolished, often without public notice or review. There are many cities and resources St. Petersburg can look to for what to include in a new demolition review ordinance. It just takes the political will to do so!


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