Last gasp for First Block? History goes unprotected in Downtown St. Pete

A City Council vote has left a key downtown block vulnerable to demolition.

If what we seek in urban areas is energy, activity and authenticity, then surely First Block — located between Central Ave. & 1st Ave. N. and between 2nd & 3rd streets in downtown St. Pete — rocks on all three levels. With Jannus Live offering outdoor concerts and a number of bars and restaurants circling the block, this place is a magnet.

But its future is threatened.

Last week, St. Petersburg City Council voted 4-4 not to protect this historic low-rise block from potential demolition. Both city staff and preservation commissioners had recommended approval of a local historic designation to protect these buildings, so the “no” vote came as a shock.

Since the buildings’ owners were not supportive of protection, there needed to be a super majority vote, 6-2, to carry the day, but a tie vote leaves the block vulnerable. Peter Belmont, an attorney and vice president of St. Pete Preservation (SPP), decried the vote, saying that protecting this block is central to the town’s history. 

Initially, preservationists assumed that the matter could be revisited this week, but city lawyers clarified that since this was a quasi-judicial hearing, it’s a done deal. The only potential change would occur if a property owner came to understand how valuable this designation would be for tax credits and would request designation willingly.

Mayor Rick Kriseman is extremely dismayed to learn that there is no chance for reconsideration. Frustrated, he’s searching for ways to help.

“We’re reviewing what we can do to safeguard this block, including alley improvements. If we’re not willing to designate this block… then what are we willing to protect?”

Councilmember Darden Rice, who voted affirmatively, explained, “The First Block is a vital link to St. Pete’s past and identity. We can put up new buildings anywhere, and we are, but the First Block is a core connection to our beginning era as a city. It’s entirely possible to develop that block in ways compatible with historic designation that are dynamic, successful, and profitable while still protecting the values of our heritage.” 

For all the furor over preserving St. Pete Pier, it was a johnny-come-lately compared to First Block, which, with its 15 historic structures, is the true epicenter of downtown. Built between 1885-1937, the block was the site of the city’s first commercial buildings, created there by the town’s most prominent movers and shakers.

In 1888, before St. Pete was incorporated as a town, construction began on a hotel to serve as a terminus for the railroad to bring folks to a sandy piece of ground. The city was named for Peter Demens’s birthplace in Russia; in exchange, his partner in bringing the railroad to town, John C. Williams, named the first hotel after his hometown, Detroit. 

Hotel Detroit became the center of town activities, and the property around it was plotted into “blocks” which housed businesses ranging from blacksmith’s quarters to markets and other hotels. “These buildings are some of the oldest in the City and form a built collective of the largest and most intact, continuously operating commercial block from the City’s recognized founding,” reports the City’s planning department analysis.

In 2013, problems with drainage, public sanitation and grease collection prompted the city to look critically at the site. In 2014, staff was directed by City Council to consider local preservation protection. Their lengthy study concluded that Block 25, as it was platted — or Detroit Block, Jannus Block, or First Block, as it’s variously (and affectionately) known — is worthy of protection.

The official city report states, ”The existing building array provides a highly distinctive experience set apart from all other blocks in the urban core. The fully extant row of buildings along Central Avenue represents an existing stock with a large percentage of primary inner constructed skeletons dating no later than 1913.

“Certain visual aspects of the block, as well as its compactness amid surrounding redevelopments encourages feelings of historic quaintness, messy vibrancy, and a certain beauty of age that deliver a strong sense of place. The attraction to the core of mostly brick, low-scaled buildings is delivered in part by how the buildings relate to the visitor in a human scale.”

Context is important, so picture the enormous monolith of ONE under construction immediately to the east, and other high-rises with no architectural character in all other directions. First Block is an oasis of low-rise massing and character.

Emily Elwyn, president of SPP, says, “Saving First Block has really resonated here because everyone has a connection to this gathering spot. For a successful city we need the shining towers along Beach Drive and we also need the authentic spaces such as First Block.”

“People come from all over the world to experience history… why would we destroy ours?” questions Danielle Paul, co-owner of A Taste for Wine, whose lacy iron balcony overlooks Central Avenue. “Our business is built on quaintness.” 

At Thursday’s 8:30 a.m. City Council meeting there will be nothing on the agenda about this issue. However, folks can attend and voice their feelings during the Public Comment section — and also remember this issue at election time. The pro-preservationists included Rice, Steve Kornell, Charlie Gerdes, and Amy Foster. Voting with the developers were Karl Nurse, Lisa Wheeler-Bowman, Jim Kennedy and Ed Montanari.

In Sunday’s Tampa Bay Times article on “10 Wow Projects,” the writer commented that St. Pete needs a skyline. I would submit that it needs both a skyline and a soul, and at this juncture, it has both. However, if we lose First Block, it could lose its heart.