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Landmark's survival hangs on promoter's plan for music museum

ST. PETERSBURG - Walking around the historical former YMCA building downtown, local music promoter Thomas Nestor doesn't seem to notice the crumbling brickwork or rusted iron. Stepping over the dusty, rubble-strewn floor, he pitches his plan to transform the building into an interactive music museum to potential investors and curious locals. The cavernous old gymnasium could become a 2,000-seat concert hall, he says enthusiastically; the tiled courtyard an impromptu gathering spot for open-air music. Seduced by the faded grandeur of the 1927 building on Fifth Street South, Nestor has made it his mission to spare it from the wrecking ball. He signed a $1.4 million contract to purchase the site but is in a race against time to raise the money. Meanwhile, owner Phil Powell has been in talks with other possible buyers, including a bank that wants to raze the building.
Key to the landmark's survival could be whether city leaders decide to donate about a dozen adjacent public parking spaces to the property, a move that would make it easier to convert the building into a hotel or residences. Powell has agreed to delay his application to demolish the site while the city considers the request for parking spaces. City Council members are scheduled to take up the request Jan. 24. City leaders seem likely to hand over the parking spaces, provided the landmark building is restored. "Downtown St. Petersburg and the city as a whole has a number of historical resources that add to the community character and legacy, and this is certainly one of those buildings," said Dave Goodwin, the city's director of planning and economic development. While those talks proceed, Nestor is looking for a benefactor to invest $360,000 in his museum project. That would give him a year of breathing space to raise money, apply for grants and get the building listed in the National Register of Historic Places. So far, he has been able to make monthly down payments of $8,000 only because two anonymous donors stepped in. His next payment is due Tuesday. "We intend to raise the money from the ground up and assure the public we will never, never demolish this," he said. The YMCA was built with $550,000 in donations, roughly $5.3 million in today's dollars, according to a city report. For decades, it was a venue for boys and men to swim, box, wrestle, play basketball and exercise. More than 50 dormitory rooms on its third and fourth floors provided low-cost lodging. It opened up to women and girls in the 1960s. The YMCA moved its operation to new premises in 2001. Since then, the 50,000-square-foot property has been sold twice. Powell bought the property in 2004 for a little more than $1 million, intending to convert it into condos. When the market sputtered, he put the building up for sale in 2006. Since then, it has drawn more than 100 showings and was under contract 11 times before buyers pulled out. Powell has invested more than $3 million in the property, the city report states. With its terracotta roof tiles and a bell hanging in a courtyard alcove, the 85-year-old building's exterior is reminiscent of a hacienda. Inside, the building has something of an identity crisis. Close to the lobby, decorated with tiles including some shipped from Seville, Spain, is a fireplace and staircase with ornate Mayan-style carvings. A nearby archway is decorated with Native American images. Cypress beams decorated with Victorian images prop up the first-floor roof. The city gave the building a historic designation in 1991, considering it an excellent example of Mediterranean Revival-style architecture. The designation means requests for demolition must be approved by the city's Community Preservation Commission. Demolition can be approved if the owner can show renovating the property is economically unfeasible. If Powell revives his plan to demolish the building, city staff will recommend the commission deny his request, Goodwin said. Nestor has been giving daily tours of the property, inviting curious people and potential investors to sidestep the rubble and broken glass, hoping to generate interest and support in his museum project. One recent visitor, Laura Duvekot, wanted to see inside the building she often used to peer at through broken windows while walking her dog. A student studying historic preservation, she wants a solution that saves the building. "I've always adored this building and wanted something to be done with it," Duvekot said. "I was excited to hear that something could be done that isn't a demolition crew."

codonnell@tampatrib.com (727) 215-7654

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