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Renovator aims for historic, not just old

Even George Rahdert has to bend over backward to get permits. He seeks the fewest contortions in order to land desalination researchers.

By JON WILSON, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published April 13, 2003

ST. PETERSBURG -- Once it stored cold treats for a steaming, subtropical city.

Now the former American Maid Ice Cream building at 1601 Third St. S, empty since 1991, might house the brain power behind another resource important here.

Owner George Rahdert plans to restore the two-story building on Salt Creek and lease space to a marine science research company.

Marine Desalination Systems would have 15 employees, about half of them Ph.Ds who hope to forge ties with the University of South Florida St. Petersburg College of Marine Science, Rahdert said.

Desalination turns seawater into a freshwater resource by extracting salt. The company Rahdert is courting would become part of the city-designated marine services district, which comprises a batch of nautical businesses near Bayboro Harbor.

But getting government permission to restore the building for the firm to use has posed a challenge, Rahdert said.

"This has been a nightmare project in dealing with the bureaucracy," said Rahdert, who has long been a critic of the city's permitting process. (Rahdert is a lawyer whose clients include the St. Petersburg Times.)

The key appears to be designating the building a historic landmark.

As simply an old building, it is subject to federal rules requiring it to be a minimum elevation above the designated flood zone.

This building is not high enough.

It also had deteriorated, making its assessed value $105,000. Federal regulations require improvements not to exceed half the property's value.

"They couldn't have been able to do what they wanted to do," said Julie Weston, the city's development services director.

"The city at one point recommended that we tear it down," Rahdert said.

But the rules are different for historic landmarks. The designation exempts some of the flood zone rules, including the base elevation requirement.

"(Rahdert) went back and forth with the city for some time," Weston said.

He decided to pursue the landmark designation.

"You can't rip up a historic building, and the object of preservation is to prevent the necessity of tearing one down," Rahdert said.

Built in 1925 for the ice cream company, the building was designed by Edgar Ferdon, who came here in 1903 and may have been the city's first architect.

Ferdon drew plans for several other significant city buildings, including two that still stand: First Congregational Church, at 256 Fourth St. N, and the Crislip Arcade, at 645 Central Ave.

City ordinances require a property to meet one of nine criteria to be landmark-eligible. The ice cream building meets two, say city planners, both stemming from its connection with Ferdon.

The seven-member Historic Preservation Commission unanimously approved the designation last month. The City Council has final say and will consider the designation Thursday at a public hearing.

The final permit for the restoration work is pending the council's approval.

Some preliminary work has been done at the site. It became an issue with the codes enforcement department, said director Sally Eichler. Some work was done without the right permit, she said.

Eichler said no enforcement action is being taken because Rahdert is working with the development services department to resolve problems.

Rahdert said his contractor received several partial permits, but that the one to allow complete restoration won't be issued until the landmark designation is final.

Meanwhile, the codes enforcement officer who had been keeping tabs on the work has been reassigned to another neighborhood.

But the new assignment had nothing to do with Rahdert's building, Eichler said.

"I'm not interested in manipulating. I was not asked to remove (the officer) based on this case. Had I been asked, it would not have carried any weight," Eichler said.

As a major downtown developer and one of the Times' lawyers, Rahdert is often regarded as influential. But he said he receives no special favors from the city.

"If waiting six months for a permit is a special favor, I want no more special favors," Rahdert said.

He bought the building in August for $350,000, began working with architects soon afterward and submitted plans to the city in November.

"The only comment I've had to the mayor was to cite an example of how the system is failing us," Rahdert said.

Rahdert and perhaps 30 architects and building contractors attended recent meetings with officials to talk about what they see as problems with the city regulatory agencies.

"I really started to raise a stink about this. When (Marine Desalination Systems) had an offer to locate in Hawaii, we were on the verge of losing this gemstone development for the community, and so I thought it needed to go beyond the building department."

Rahdert said there should be room in the 16,000- to 18,000-square-foot building for more than one tenant.

"Our interest would be to get other high-tech, scientific organizations," he said.

Besides housing the ice cream company, the building -- which is next to the stomach-lurching Third Street hump known as Thrill Hill -- was also a dairy that operated under several names. It is sometimes known as the Sealtest building.

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