Preservation in Practice: The Flori De Leon

January 26, 2024
Balconies overlook the Flori De Leon's courtyard

Elizabeth Bell stumbled on the historic Flori de Leon Apartments by accident. She and her husband rented a unit during an extended winter stay. Well. Not just any unit. They happened to rent the apartment once occupied by the one and only Babe Ruth. Before the lease was up they had purchased a unit in the 100-year-old Mediterranean Revival building. She and her husband, Jack, had fallen in love with the place and the people, the sense of community, and maybe a little bit of the history, too.  “It’s a gem in the middle of the city,” she says. 

Constructed in 1926 and known for its famous winter residents Ruth and his New York Yankees teammate, Lou Gehrig, the seven-story Flori is a little different from the modern high rises that seem to sprout up every week in St. Petersburg. There’s no “amenity deck,” pool or fitness center, there’s no multi-level parking garage. 

“You really have to love old buildings,” says Bell, the Flori's current board president. “We sell the charm, we sell the location. It just grabs your heart when you’re here.”

There’s also the price point. 

“It was the value proposition for me,” says board member and building committee chair, Jeff Farnsworth. “Honestly, I didn’t care that much about the history.” Farnsworth shopped the city’s inventory of newer condos and came away with sticker shock. After reluctantly agreeing to tour the Flori with his realtor, he started to do the math. “It’s the number one location in downtown and the value is excellent.” 

“We didn’t know anything about the history of the building when we came here,” adds Terry Smith, treasurer of the Flori board. “It’s a factor, but the location and price are the driver.”

The Flori is one of only two apartment “cooperatives” in St. Pete. (the other is the Lake Palm Apartments on Mirror Lake). Residents purchase shares relative to the square footage of their unit and hold the shares until they’re ready to sell. 

The other thing that sets the Flori apart is its designation as a Local Historic Landmark. It was placed on the City’s register of historic places in 1994.

When it comes to taking care of an iconic landmark in the middle of downtown, the board and building committee members we spoke with agreed that the building’s age and its historic designation come with both challenges and opportunities. Indeed, people sometimes refer to historic preservation projects as a series of restrictions coupled with incentives or, sometimes, “sticks and carrots.”

One of those carrots? TDRs.

What’s a “TDR” you ask? TDR stands for “Transfer of Development Rights,” and when it comes to saving historic buildings in St. Petersburg, it’s been an effective incentive.

Designated local landmarks like the Flori can sell their “potential” development rights to a downtown development project needing an FAR (floor area ratio) bonus to allow for increased “intensity.” Usually that means increased height beyond downtown's "base height." You can dive into the mechanics of FAR by watching this video.

“It’s like a carbon offset for old buildings,” says Preserve the ‘Burg board member Peter Belmont. “New buildings are essentially purchasing credits from historic buildings. The historic building is saved, gets an infusion of cash, and the developer of the new building gets to add some extra floors.”

Until the recent post-COVID construction boom, TDRs largely went unused but, after the City made some tweaks to the benefit, buildings like ONE and 400 Central have purchased the credits to help satisfy the City’s bonus requirements for increased FAR. 

“No one knows what TDRs are, let’s be honest,” says committee member Smith with a laugh. 

But one day they got a call from a developer who told them that since the Flori was a local landmark, they could sell their development rights. 

Over the last few years, the Flori’s board of directors have sold around 938,000 TDR credits at around $1.70 per share. They used some of the funds to repair their roof and invested the rest, resulting in an endowment of sorts that pays a healthy annual dividend. 

“Because of our investment of some of the TDR money, we ended up with far more than the actual dollar amount of the TDRs,” says Smith. 

They all agree the TDR sales were “a life saver” in terms of helping to maintain the building and keep HOA assessments low. “A Godsend” is how Bell describes it. 

“It’s not a panacea,” says Farnsworth. “But if  the funds are properly managed it can create cashflow to handle repair issues as they come up.”

While talking about maintaining the building, committee members agree that it hasn’t all been carrots. There have been a few sticks along the way. A window and door replacement project dragged on for a little over four months before the City issued the Flori a five-year blanket approval for window replacement.

“There is a cost premium for historic buildings,” says Farnsworth. “Part of that premium is your time.”

There are around 140 windows in the common areas of the building, and that doesn’t account for the 77 privately owned residential units. Over the years, residents and building managers replaced windows without coordinating with the HOA or requesting permits, resulting in a mish mash of styles and quality.

The Flori board and building committee sought approval from the city for 67 windows and 10 exterior doors. 

“In the end, we improved our standards and our ability to take care of the building, but getting there was tedious.” says Farnsworth. “We now have a uniform set of design standards, any owner can update their windows without delay, and there’s more clarity for residents." 

“We’re finally doing repairs the way they should be done,” adds Smith. 

The volunteer committee sometimes feels like they’ve taken on full time jobs. Like any multi-unit condo, there are plenty of surprises and projects to keep them busy: There was a water leak, a roof replacement has dragged on longer than it should have, they’ve negotiated with insurance providers (The Flori’s premiums actually decreased this year after several major repairs, an anomaly in the midst of Florida’s insurance crisis.)

“I wish it had taken less time to get here,” says Farnsworth. “But, ultimately, we’ve benefited from going through the process.”

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