THE 400 BLOCK OF CENTRAL AVE.
The Central National Bank & Pheil Hotel Buildings
Background: The corner of 4th St. & Central Ave., in the heart of downtown, has been the home to a pair of buildings that most hardly would give a second look at. Since 1960, one has only seen the "cheese grater" - an aluminum facade hiding two historic and beautiful buildings - the 1912 Central National Bank and the 1924 Pheil Hotel. The picture to the right shows the "cheese grater" view and the picture below shows the buildings during the 1931 run on the bank.
Both buildings have amazing stories. The Pheil was developed as the city's first high rise hotel by Abram Pheil - his $400 bid entitled him to be the first passenger flying from the 'Burg to Tampa with the St. Petersburg Tampa Airboat Co. The bank was the third one organized in the city and except when it temporarily closed in 1931 during the great depression continuously operated as a bank for almost 75 years. Click here to read a city staff report about the buildings' history and to see more building photos.
The Threat: The 400 block of Central has been owned for many years by two ownership interests - the descendants of Abram Pheil and First States, a real estate investment trust. These two interests have left the buildings vacant for 10 years, with each blaming the other for the block's condition. In early 2016, the two interests announced they had reached an agreement for the Pheil family to take over the entire block with the intention to sell the block for redevelopment. The problem, the Pheils demanded demolition of the two historic buildings under the "cheese grater" facade. The city, the chamber of commerce and the newspaper editorial board, among others, quickly rallied in support of demolition and hoped for block redevelopment.
SPP's Response: In late 2015, having heard rumors about block redevelopment, SPP met with and unsuccessfully sought Mayor Kriseman's support of landmark designation for the buildings. In early 2016 SPP started to ask for public support for putting off building demolition, at least until new plans were in place for the block. Over 500 people sent to the city one of SPP's action alert letters and over 200 sent in a post card. In February 2016, the property owners applied for a demolition permit. Despite the outpouring of public comment, the city granted an exemption to their demolition procedures, allowing for immediate demolition. Demolition was temporarily put on hold as a result of SPP filing a landmark application and ultimately challenging in court the exemption.
The Settlement: While continuing in its efforts to build public support, SPP was seeing the options to save the buildings dwindle. City council denied a request to stay the demolition permit, the city's preservation commission recommended to city council not to grant landmark status to the buildings and the newspaper editorials continued to criticize SPP and call for demolition and block redevelopment. SPP entered into separate negotiations with Mayor Kriseman and with First States, one of the block owners. These negotiations culminated on June 16 in a settlement being reached. SPP agreed to end further efforts to save the buildings and to dismiss its legal action challenging the demolition permit. The agreement with Mayor Kriseman, among other things, called for him to seek city council approval of amending the city code so the demolition permit exemption used in the 400 block case could no longer be used to advance demolition of other historic buildings; to further city landmark designation efforts, and to begin efforts to create a downtown heritage walking trail. The settlement with First States included, among other things, a $100,000 donation to SPP, documentation of the historic buildings, reuse of the historic bank clock, and creation of an exhibit on the history of the bank and hotel buidings.
Why the Settlement: The quick and simple reason - the SPP Board concluded that we were not going to prevail in the effort to save the buildings. Additionally, the Board considered not only the present “fight” but also the next one and the next one. To be successful at saving the best of our past SPP must be able to work with decision makers and property owners. Yes, we don't always agree with them and we try to push them to do more but at some point continuing to advocate for saving a building crosses a line. At that point, the immediate building one has been trying to save is lost and so too probably the next one because the decision makers and property owners see no reason to work with SPP. It is a difficult balancing act to be effective at preservation!
Ending the fight to save the bank and hotel buildings was a heart wrenching decision for SPP, especially knowing some would criticize us for "selling out". Compromise can be one of the most difficult things to do as a public interest advocacy group. To be a successful advocate, however, one must understand that there is a time & place for compromise. In many ways, SPP’s easy choice would have been to continue fighting but if one takes a longer term preservation view, it is clear that choice was not the smart one .
Finally, SPP believes the settlement will have long term positives for preservation in the 'Burg. First, the settlement takes a leap forward to end the demolition "exemption" for other historic buildings. It was this very exemption process that made the case for saving the bank and hotel buildings so difficult. And, the majority of the settlement money will be used to seed the creation of a revolving fund, a long standing SPP goal to create. Such a fund can be used to purchase or renovate threatened historic properties, being repaid through property sale or loan repayment and the funds used again and again to save additional buildings.
Your Support: Keeping St. Petersburg Special by reusing the best of the past is what has made the 'Burg one of the most desirable small cities in the country and SPP is passionate about doing so. We thank our many members and supporters who responded to our calls for action to try to help save the Central National Bank and Pheil Hotel Buildings. Your support is critical to our joint success. We look forward to your ongoing support. If you have questions about how SPP goes about its mission just drop us a note, we would be happy to talk with you.
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