First Block, the group of buildings on Central Avenue and 1st Avenue, between 2nd and 3rd Streets, is arguably the most historic block in all of St. Petersburg. Its history parallels that of the city at large—both were born in 1888 with the coming of the Orange Belt Railroad. The block’s oldest building, the original Detroit Hotel (now condominiums, a restaurant, and a market) was built in 1888. It was named in honor of the hometown of city co-founder, John C. Williams, who hailed from Detroit, Michigan.
The majority of the buildings within the block are pre-1910 structures. They housed the city’s earliest businesses and are some of the city’s oldest remaining buildings. Only one historic structure on the block has been lost to date: the original structure at 1st Avenue North and 3rd Street was demolished in 1966. All of the other structures retain excellent historic integrity.
2013: After advocacy efforts led by Preserve the ‘Burg and championed by city council member Jeff Danner, an application to designate First Block as a local historic district was initiated by the City. However, lacking support in the Mayor's office, the issue stalled during the tenure of Mayor Bill Foster.
2016: With Mayor Kriseman in office, the First Block historic district application was reviewed by the City's Community Planning and Preservation Commission who recommended the block's designation as a local historic district. The application was heard by City Council in October of 2016 but the application was denied when Council deadlocked in a 4-4 vote on a motion for its approval.
2019: In December, Council member Charlie Gerdes, in has last meeting as a council member before leaving office due to term limits, asked council to explore again historic designation for First Block. Council agreed and referred the matter for further discussion to their Committee of the Whole ("COW"). While COW meets monthly and First Block has been scheduled for discussion, the matter has been deferred and has yet to be heard for further discussion.
Two of the buildings on the block, the Detroit Hotel (215 Central Avenue) and Bishop Hotel (260 1st Ave N) have been designated as individual local historic landmarks, the applications for designation having been prepared and submitted by Preserve the ‘Burg. The remainder of the block bears no historic designation, and as such, has no protections in place against demolition or alteration. With downtown construction booming, it could only be a matter of time before a redevelopment plan is issued for First Block. If such a plan comes forward, the city’s ability under downtown zoning standards to protect First Block is limited absent the block's buildings being designated as individual landmarks or part of a local historic district.
First Block can still be designated a local historic district, by a simple majority vote of City Council. Designation as a local historic district provides a review process, with public hearing, for major redevelopment efforts, allowing the public and City Council to have a voice in major exterior changes, or demolitions on the block.
We have been working to encourage City Council Members to initiate another First Block historic district application. We believe the political will to designate First Block as a local historic district is possible. City Council still needs to hear from the public about the importance of doing so. We will continue to educate Council members and others about the importance of this block, the existential threat it faces as rampant development takes place around it, and the benefits of historic district designation.