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    A Times Editorial

    The pull of historic housing

    © St. Petersburg Times
    published May 26, 2002

    If you wait long enough, a liability can become an asset. Such is the case in St. Petersburg, where its dated housing stock became the raw material for thriving neighborhoods interested in historic preservation. The effort has been so successful that if the North Shore neighborhood (recently renamed Historic Old Northeast) is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, it would become the second largest district of its kind in Florida, with 3,200 conforming structures.

    And that is not all. The city has 77 individually listed historic landmarks, and two neighborhoods are already on the National Register -- Roser Park and Granada Terrace. Both the Historic Kenwood and Historic Round Lake neighborhoods are likely to earn that distinction, as well. St. Petersburg got a chance to showcase its efforts recently when the Florida Trust for Historic Preservation held its annual conference at the Renaissance Vinoy Resort, itself on the national register.

    Such recognition is not a trivial matter, but has a significant impact on property values, the city's tax base and quality-of-life issues. Consider appreciation of property values. In neighborhoods that are more suburban in style, values have increased about 5 percent a year, according to a recent study by the Florida Trust. Traditional neighborhoods where older homes are being revitalized, on the other hand, appreciated at a rate of 8 to 12 percent. In addition, crime rates are lower in those neighborhoods.

    The reasons for this phenomenon are both economic and social. Houses in older neighborhoods generally cost less than new construction, at least until they are "discovered." Also, homeowners are seeking the social rewards of traditional neighborhoods. Their front porches, close shopping and shared interest in historic renovation all contribute to neighborliness. "It's all those amenities you just can't get in a subdivision," said Bob Jeffrey, manager of the city's Division of Urban Design and Historic Preservation.

    Jeffrey says many St. Petersburg neighborhoods have "context." A development boom in the early 1920s created a neat grid of streets and alleys lined with attractive houses in a variety of styles. Today, those houses worthy of restoration remain not as isolated specimens but in great numbers, which gives whole neighborhoods the feel of another era. "What we have is block after block of 1920s neighborhoods and looking just like the '20s," Jeffrey said.

    St. Petersburg's enviable position was hard-earned. Pioneering homeowners began reclaiming the older neighborhoods and fought against encroachment from new development. The effort paid off not only for the homeowners but also for the city, which has a stable residential core that protects the tax base and fuels the downtown renaissance.

    Success brings new challenges, however. When older neighborhoods become too trendy, affluent newcomers are tempted to tear down old houses for new ones with modern amenities, but by doing so they destroy the irreplaceable qualities that made the place unique.

    Being listed on the national register carries no regulatory authority, but a local historic listing does. It is available on individual properties and entire neighborhoods, and it requires more scrutiny of proposed renovations. But two-thirds of property owners in the designated area must request a local listing from the city. Only two districts -- Roser Park and Granada Terrace -- have done so.

    St. Petersburg officials should keep an eye on the direction its historic housing is headed. As those neighborhoods go, so goes the city.

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