Would we be St. Pete without the buildings that makes us special? Can you imagine downtown without the funky Crislip Arcade in Central Avenue’s 600 Block or without First Block and the city’s most historic building—the Detroit Hotel, built by the city founders in 1888? What about Fourth Street without the iconic Sunken Gardens or 22nd Street without Mercy Hospital or the Manhattan Casino? Would St. Pete be the same without these historic pieces to our built environment?
Maintaining a city’s sense of place doesn’t occur just by happenstance. It happens in cities that are proud of and recognize their heritage and have implemented a historic preservation program while prioritizing a steady, modest scale to the developed landscape and new construction.
In a boom period, not only is their loss conceivable but each of these special places faced various types of demolition threats in the not-too-distant past. Today, all are preserved and are proudly being reused. All were preserved, in part, as a result of third-party landmark applications.
Third-party applications and landmark designations are part of the lingo and preservation program process. At times, the process creates controversy but would we be special without it?
A third-party landmark application is an application for landmark designation by a person or organization who is not the building's property owner, such as Preserve the 'Burg, a neighborhood association, or even the City. Landmark designation is a St. Petersburg (not state or national) classification for properties having historical, architectural or cultural significance and more particularly meeting the standards set forth in St. Petersburg’s historic preservation ordinance.
Taking into consideration that third-party applications are not owner initiated, city council has imposed for them an enhanced application and approval process. This process requires super-majority council approval (6 of 8 members), applicant meetings with the property owner and council member in whose district the property is located, and added notice requirements.
All landmarks are subject to a review process, known as a certificate of appropriateness or “COA”, prior to exterior alteration, demolition or new construction. The COA process is in part designed to discourage demolition of landmarks and to encourage their reuse. COA review takes place before the city’s Community Planning and Preservation Commission (“CPPC”) and in some cases in front of City Council. A public hearing is conducted and the decision makers must apply the criteria set forth in the historic preservation ordinance to determine if the COA should be approved. Landmarks can also qualify for tax incentives and building code flexibility.
In 1998 the Historic Old Northeast Neighborhood Association felt that Sunken Gardens was so important to their neighborhood that they submitted an owner-objected landmark application for it, paving the way for the City’s purchase of the iconic attraction and its rejuvenation and transformation into the jewel we see today.
More than twenty years earlier, the fate of the historic Mercy Hospital was at issue and community groups joined together, including PTB and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, to seek an owner-objected designation for the Hospital building. It had served as the primary care facility for African Americans from 1923 to 1966. The landmark effort succeeded and today the Hospital continues to provide community based health care.
In 2017, the Crescent Heights Neighborhood Association felt similarly regarding their neighborhood’s historic Church of the Beatitudes (corner of 28th Ave. N. & 8th St.), submitting an owner-objected landmark application, prompting a developer who had recently purchased the historic church building to reconsider his plan to tear it down. The church building is being converted into a unique single-family residence.
Any controversy regarding the applications noted above, including the propriety of a “third-party” seeking landmark designation over owner objection, are largely forgotten. Now, these places seem like success stories—character defining landmarks whose preservation is even lauded in national magazines by travel writers seeking a sense of place. At the time of application, these properties were in danger because their owners weren't able to see the value of preserving the spaces as-is compared to the potential of new construction on the site.
It should be noted while third-party owner objected applications may stand out because of the debate that can ensue, they are the exception rather than the rule. After a lengthy hearing over PTB’s owner-objected Detroit Hotel landmark application in 2010, city preservation staff noted that the City’s allowance for such applications was in line with other local government preservation programs, Tampa being one nearby example. In 2015, staff reported, of the 106 local landmarks in St. Petersburg, only nine were designated over owner objection and that there had only been three additional owner objected applications denied by City Council.
It takes work to keep St. Petersburg special, even more so as developers from other places “discover” our sense of place. If the ‘Burg is to remain special, our significant historical, architectural and cultural resources need to be recognized. Having a third-party landmark designation process is one piece to the puzzle in so doing.