ST. PETERSBURG — It’s easy to miss the row of shaded houses that constitute Lang’s Bungalow Court.
The century-old neighborhood is tucked away in one of the outskirts of downtown — just east of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, near the Interstate 375 overpass.
Pedestrians who do step onto the lane from gritty Fourth Avenue North might be surprised at the well-kept gardens and lofty homes that line the wide, hex block-paved walkway. They’ll see bright gardens, vintage patio furniture and neighbors chatting with one another as they tend to their yards.
“I call it the best neighborhood nobody heard of in St. Petersburg,” said Emily Elwyn, a spokeswoman for nonprofit St. Petersburg Preservation.
The nonprofit, along with the residents, are trying to keep it that way by asking the city to designate it as a historic neighborhood, a status that would make it difficult to redevelop within its bounds.
It started when the St. Petersburg Free Clinic, a nonprofit that has operated a transitional housing facility for homeless women near Lang’s Court for 25 years, said it wanted to expand its parking by at least five spaces, which would involve knocking down at least one building on the lane as part of a planned expansion that would more than triple its current capacity of 20 with the addition of a 50-bed facility.
“What we’re finding is today we can admit two to four women every month,” the organization’s executive director Beth Houghton said. “We get phone calls, like 150 a month looking for housing. The demand just far exceeds the supply of transitional housing for homeless women.”
The spaces would serve donors and volunteers, she said, who are often carrying loads of donated clothing and housewares. Residents of Lang’s Bungalow Court, meanwhile, think more parking spaces would add blight and enable unsavory behavior for some of the nearby homeless population.
The lane was developed by Al Lang, who purchased the plot in 1912. Lang, St. Petersburg mayor from 1916-20, is known for helping to bring spring training to St. Petersburg, hence the ball field along the downtown waterfront named in his honor.
There are about a dozen bungalows in all. Front yards here function more like traditional backyards, and residents park cars behind their homes. Elwyn said the bungalow courts Lang came across while visiting Southern California inspired him to give the block its unusual layout. Each home opens onto the large walkway, reminiscent of a time when goods such as ice were more commonly delivered to wealthy residents’ front doors.
The youngest building, a three-story stucco duplex, was built in the 1950s. The neighborhood fell into decline in the ensuing decades.
“Over time, people moved out of downtown St. Pete because it was somewhat of a transient neighborhood,” Elwyn said.
The economic crisis exacerbated the crime and dilapidation, but several years ago a handful of people bought up some of the homes and began renovating them. All but a handful have been restored, including the massive structure in which Lang resided.
Now, it’s what resident Cesar Morales, 37, calls an “oasis” amid an otherwise rundown part of the city.
“The neighbors interact daily,” Morales said. “The kids run back-and-forth between yards. As do the dogs.”
Morales and his wife, Danni Letendere, 31, began renting there about eight months ago. They installed two hammocks and an herb garden in their front yard. They have become vocal supporters of the historic designation.
They said additional parking spaces will diminish quality of life.
“It’d be chipping away at the integrity of the community,” Morales said. “And as much as we support the clinic and their mission to enhance the community as a whole, we do not think that surface parking lots enhance the community. In fact, they add blight.”
The five parking spaces are a compromise. The clinic originally intended to knock down buildings on either end of the street. Both are large bungalows in a sorry state of repair. One, which the Free Clinic already owns, has a detached garage apartment. The clinic is under contract to purchase the other.
As for the property it already owns, the clinic now plans only to knock down the detached garage, and is selling the house — a compromise it came to through working with St. Petersburg Preservation.
The residents’ application for the special designation, if passed, would make it very difficult for anyone to make major changes to a structure on Lang’s Bungalow Court. The city’s Historic Preservation Board will hear the residents’ case on it April 8, and city council will have final say.