ST. PETERSBURG — It’s been about 50 years, but Snell Isle resident Becky Wilson remembers the smell of freshly polished wood that greeted her each morning she arrived at North Ward School, the school she attended in 1955, her mother attended in 1925 and her daughter attended in 1985.
But Wilson’s picture of what North Ward School once was is a far cry from what it has become. Vacant since 2008, marked by graffiti and in disrepair, it sits behind a chain-link fence at the corner of 11th Avenue North and Fourth Street in a row of restored houses and historic commercial buildings in Old Northeast, most of which were built at the turn of the 20th century.
After months of debate, residents in the Historic Old Northeast Neighborhood Association and St. Petersburg Preservation Inc. persuaded the Community Preservation and Planning Commission on Tuesday to recommend that the school be given landmark status. All other county schools built before it were demolished.
“The inside is just beautiful, high ceilings and real tall windows we would open up because back in the day we didn’t have air conditioning,” Wilson said. “That’s where many of us learned to duck and cover under our desks or walk safely back home. The world changed, but North Ward didn’t.”
But not all in the community share Wilson’s view of what the school, which closed in 1990 because of its age, represents.
Although many support saving the building, others have emailed city officials with concerns, and the Pinellas County School Board, the building’s owner, has not “indicated their support for or opposition to” the landmark application, according to the city application.
The school district put the building up for sale last year at $2.5 million and has since reduced the price to $1.75 million.
Declaring a building a landmark creates an extra layer of protection against demolition and encourages owners to repurpose it instead, said Peter Belmont, vice president of the St. Petersburg Preservation Society. Before significant exterior features could be changed, or before the building could be torn down, the owners would have to go through a permitting process or prove there is no longer an economic use for the building. Becoming a designated landmark also makes the building eligible for historic designation tax credits and financial incentives if it’s reopened, Belmont said.
But those regulations could make it difficult for the school board to get top dollar for the building or to sell it at all, wrote Rachel Wein, former chairperson of the real estate and construction committee for the Pinellas Education Foundation, in a letter to the city. The foundation recommended the school board sell the property.
“The cost to rehab a facility like this is significant due to functional obsolescence, abatement issues and modernization needs,” wrote Wein, a licensed architect and commercial real estate advisor. “It has the potential to bring in considerable value to the school system, and over the years has been a drain on resources for maintenance.”
But the board’s desire to sell the building, and its “great location” on Fourth Street, is partially why St. Pete Preservation has made a push to save it, Belmont said.
“We thought it made sense, before there was another owner, for the city to recognize its value so any potential owner would recognize that there’s a desire to reuse the building and it may be difficult to tear it down,” Belmont said.
There are plenty of ways the building could be reused without sacrificing its integrity, he said. One potential buyer proposed making a “pop up business incubator” to provide temporary storefronts for small businesses, such as those that set up booths for the city’s Saturday Morning Market and are hoping to expand.
“A lot of the success St. Pete is having right now and a lot of the buzz about how neat it is, is, we feel, due in part to maintaining its sense of place, keeping the feeling in your community by maintaining a mix of old and new,” Belmont said. “Green Bench Brewery, The Birchwood Hotel, Rococo Steak House, The Vinoy Hotel, those are all examples of old buildings being put back to use. If one is a visitor or tourist staying in downtown St. Pete, chances are you’re probably staying and exploring in a historic building that is being put back to use.”
To the Community Preservation and Planning Commission, the decision to recommend landmark status came down to the city’s criteria for the designation, which North Ward met “several times over,” Belmont said.
The commission’s recommendation is that the original 1914 school building and 1931 two-story addition receive the designation, excluding a one-story addition built in 1948 and expanded in 1960, said Derek Kilborn, manager of the Urban Planning and Historic Preservation Division of the city’s Planning and Economic Development Department, in an email.
City council will have the final say on the building’s status, which likely will be either 6 p.m. April 17 or 9 a.m. May 1, Kilborn said.