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Thursday, Sep 18, 2014

Historic St. Pete buildings get a shot at new life


Published:   |   Updated: August 18, 2014 at 08:31 AM

— A land boom in the early part of the last century brought this stately brick schoolhouse out of the ground just north of downtown.

A new development boom sweeping across St. Petersburg is bringing the abandoned Euclid School back to life along with other aging buildings that will bank on historic charm in their second life as apartments and small businesses.

At Third Street and First Avenue South, investors plan to transform a 103-year-old, five-story brick building into a mixed-use destination center with a posh top-floor condominium, 12 boutique hotel rooms, a restaurant and offices for entrepreneurs.

On 11th Avenue North, preservationists are hopeful one of Pinellas County’s oldest mission-style schoolhouses, North Ward Secondary School, will be reused rather than razed by a developer that has a contract to buy the property from the school board.

Michael Mincberg’s vision for the Euclid School is set.

He plans to build 16 one- and two-bedroom apartments set in old classrooms that will show off the building’s brick walls, mosaic tiled water fountains and other architectural flourishes with monthly rents starting about $1,000.

Bringing a 90-year-old schoolhouse up to the tastes of modern renters will be costly and challenging, but Mincberg says his renovated Euclid Lofts will give renters something they won’t find in the myriad newly built apartment units going up around the city: character.

“What I really like about these renovations is the character you can have in a building like this really adds value,” said Mincberg, who has taken on several historical-renovation projects across the Tampa Bay area.

“To build a building like this now to make apartments wouldn’t make financial sense.”

Mincberg went in on the $300,000 purchase with Tampa Bay Rays outfielder Matt Joyce.

The two-story school is in a tree-shaded neighborhood north of downtown at 1090 10th St. N. It opened in 1925 and continued to be used as a school until the 1980s.

Mincberg is working with St. Petersburg Preservation to get the 13,000-square-foot building designated a historic landmark by the city.

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While a strong market for new construction around downtown — mostly in rental apartments — can be viewed as a threat to preserving these old structures, there are many success stories of entrepreneurs adapting them for creative and fresh uses.

An old warehouse off First Avenue North seems an ideal place for Green Bench Brewing Company, a microbrewery with a name that evokes St. Petersburg’s history as the city of green benches.

A former YWCA reopened last year as Rococo steakhouse, while the Birchwood Inn on Beach Drive has revived a faded hotel with chic, modern amenities.

Preservationists such as Peter Belmont would like the city to make it easier for buildings to get landmark status. He says the financial incentives for reviving and maintaining historic structures aren’t well publicized, but his group’s message clearly is catching on.

“Preservation works and it seems like it can work especially well for St. Pete in the sense of us still being a tourist town, and at least for some uses, it’s very attractive for people to be coming to historic buildings,” said Belmont, a longtime leader in St. Petersburg Preservation.

His group has clashed with the Pinellas County School Board about a request to make the 1914 North Ward Secondary School a historic landmark, which school officials said might reduce its sale value.

The building appears to be safe from destruction, though, as a developer is in the process of buying the property with plans for commercial use, possibly as a fresh food market or restaurant, Belmont said.

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One of the city’s more ambitious reuse projects comes from Steve Gianfilippo, whose Tampa-based Gries Investment Funds plans to transform a 30,000-square-foot building spread out along the northwest corner of First Avenue South’s 200 block.

The former fire station that most recently housed Café Alma on the ground floor will be renamed the Station House in a mixed-use project that will include new dining, retail, hotel rooms and a spacious condominium with a private terrace, city officials say.

On Friday, Gianfilippo announced another historic acquisition in the 32-room Pier Hotel at 253 Second Ave N.: “stay tuned as we gently upgrade the oldest running hotel in #Stpete,” he tweeted.

jboatwright@tampatrib.com

(727) 215-1277

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