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© St. Petersburg Times, published March 11, 2001
It's hard to quantify what constitutes blight. And when a neighborhood's residents perceive decay setting in, they often look first to the city for help. That is particularly true when a historic landmark is involved. Such is the case with the old Mercy Hospital building and grounds on 22nd Street S, where a promised revitalization looks all but stalled. The city has done an admirable job with many abandoned residential properties. But it's easy to see how residents concerned about Mercy, an important historic site, could feel slighted by the city's plan to let it sit until a private buyer comes along.
Besides Mercy, the city owns two other historic properties: the aging tourist attraction, Sunken Gardens -- which the city renovated by marshaling state, federal and local money -- and the St. Petersburg Shuffleboard Club, which planners are seeking grants to preserve.
All three structures hold a place on the historic register and a special spot in the memories of surrounding residents. The Shuffleboard Club was the first of its kind in the nation. Sunken Gardens, contemporary to Weeki Wachee's mermaids, was a tourism magnet in the pre-Disney days. Mercy Hospital served black residents under segregation. There are young people living in and around 22nd Street's neighborhoods today who were born there as late as the 1960s. But the Shuffleboard Club and Sunken Gardens benefit from buildings that can still be used, while Mercy has a long gash in its roof that makes it uninhabitable.
What's more, Sunken Gardens enjoyed a political push that has not been in evidence for Mercy, garnering it $1.5-million in Penny for Pinellas funds, a slightly smaller federal appropriation courtesy of U.S. Rep. C.W. Bill Young and a state grant. That's in addition to the city's one-time appropriation to buy the land and subsidize operating costs.
By contrast, most of the original buildings at Mercy have been torn down, and the one remaining has been allowed to deteriorate for years. Planning commissioners had to yell loudly to get the building secured against vandals and vagrants. Preservationists estimate roof repairs would cost $174,000 and might have to be augmented later. So really, they say, only the outer walls are salvageable.
Rather than seeking grants or a federal appropriation for Mercy, planners have deemed it best to put off renovations in hopes of attracting a private tenant. Mercy deserves better.
The city has had remarkable success working with private owners to renovate residential properties and remove them from the boarded and abandoned list. Code enforcement estimates that the number of such properties has decreased from about 800 to 355 since 1994. The city has reduced the number of vacant residential properties it had to take over to fewer than 100. But the key to those achievements is that an interested owner already has a stake in the property. It may take a little spit and polish to attract a new buyer for an abandoned site -- even when a historic property is involved.
Looking for a private partner to take on the bulk of Mercy's renovation or restoration makes sense. It parallels the move to let a theme restaurant offset some of the costs of Sunken Gardens. But some public investment will likely have to come first. Revitalizing the 5-acre parcel -- or at least showing some progress there -- could be a shot in the arm for the 22nd Street corridor. Residents already are working ardently to win development assistance for the area through the Florida Main Street program. Besides, coming on the heels of the city's other aggressive efforts for historic properties, it's the right thing to do.