It’s the age-old coastal Pinellas County tale.
Beaches drive tourism and development. Real estate changes hands. Land use ordinances are disputed or altered.
High-rise condominiums and vacation rentals go up before longtime residents can process that their little slice of paradise is no longer quite the same.
This is not yet the story of historic Pass-a-Grille.
At the southern tip of Pinellas County’s barrier islands, the quaint and welcoming district of the city of St. Pete Beach has largely maintained its small-town charm. The roadways are narrow, the speed limit slow. The brick-lined main street, just steps from the sand, looks like it was pulled from the set of a Hallmark movie.
But a recent proposal for a new hotel, and the possible demolition of a historic building to make way for it, has some residents concerned that without intervention, all that they love about their community will soon change. The developer said it doesn’t have to be that way.
Here’s what you need to know about the proposed project, early resident response and the battle gearing up to “keep the historic in Pass-a-Grille.”
Mass and scale
The proposed development is a three-story, 42,000-square-foot structure, with about 50 parking spaces, 27 hotel rooms, ground-level retail space and a rooftop bar and pool that would be located at the eastern corner of Eighth Avenue — the center of Pass-a-Grille’s historic business district.
It’s the current location of an open parking lot, bordered by palms, as well as a pink building from the 1920s, formerly known as the Marine Apartments. The building’s exterior has changed over the years, but the bones of the structure have remained the same.
The plans for the hotel are beautiful, said Pass-a-Grille resident Beverly Jackson, but it’s the size of the project that concerns her.
“It’s just humongous,” said Jackson, standing on the corner of Eighth Avenue in late October. “Look around at the other buildings on this street and imagine (it there). It’s not consistent with the vibe of historic Pass-a-Grille.”
In response to the proposed project, Jackson said that she and neighbors recently started a nonprofit called Friends of Pass-a-Grille.
“We are a group of citizens with a deep love of historic Pass-a-Grille and want to see the charm and ambience that drew us all here be maintained,” reads the group’s website.
Jackson said that about 100 people have joined Friends of Pass-a-Grille since the site went live in October, and most have voiced similar concerns.
“We are not opposed to development,” Jackson said. “We’re opposed to big mass and scale in our community.”
Amy Loughery, a local business owner, agreed.
Loughery has lived in the community since she was a teenager in the 1970s. When she moved to Pass-a-Grille from Indiana, she first lived in the pink building where the proposed hotel would go up. Now, she works out of its office space.
“I’m a little biased because of my personal connection to the building,” Loughery said. “But we’re at a tipping point in Pass-a-Grille. I’m not opposed to a hotel, but I just want to make sure we’re protecting our fragile little island. We want the size to match the rest of Pass-a-Grille.”
Longtime resident Marsha Anderson said she’s worried the development will be a gateway for more projects of similar scale in the future.
“Pass-a-Grille is special,” Anderson said. “If we don’t stop what’s happening, we’ll end up like everywhere else.”
Evolution vs. change
Like Jackson, Loughery and Anderson, many of the people who have joined Friends of Pass-a-Grille have lived here for decades. It’s their home, and they want to protect it.
But one of the developers on the proposed hotel said that she’s no different.
Maryann Ferenc has lived in Pass-a-Grille for nearly 30 years. She owns the Berkley Beach Club, a boutique hotel and restaurant located just across the street from the site of the intended development. Her background is in hospitality and tourism, and she used to chair Visit Florida, the state’s tourism board.
Now, it’s Ferenc — and three friends — who are hoping to open the hotel, which they’re calling The Holloway, in the space.
“I care about this neighborhood so much,” Ferenc said. “We want to build something that will be meaningful and last a long time.”
Although the sale of the property where the hotel would go up is not yet official, Ferenc said she’s hopeful it will be finalized by December.
Notably, St. Pete Beach City Commissioner Melinda Pletcher is the real estate agent representing the seller on the multimillion-dollar deal. Pletcher said she notified the city attorney of her involvement and will recuse herself in the event that it comes before the commission.
Ferenc said she understands that people feel passionately about the project; she and the other developers want to have community discussions and are open to feedback. But as for the scale of the project, Ferenc said she’s making no promises. What’s being proposed is currently allowable by city land-use codes.
“I always say that people hate change, but they can learn to love evolution,” Ferenc said. “We care about Pass-a-Grille and we want to do something that’s going to be architecturally beautiful here.”
And, Ferenc added, if this project doesn’t come to fruition, residents should remember that another eventually will.
“The fact is that someone is going to build there,” Ferenc said. “I thought if we could do something with love and passion and respect for history and for the community, that would be better than someone who didn’t live here and didn’t have a connection to the community (building on the land).”
What’s worth saving?
At a city commission meeting Nov. 2, a group of about 25 residents — led by Jackson — filled a room at City Hall. They held up paper signs that read things like, “Keep the historic in Pass-A-Grille.”
Jackson, who was formerly a city commissioner and member of the historic preservation board, said the size of the proposed development poses the most immediate threat to the neighborhood. But the project has illuminated the lack of protections for the area’s historic district. That’s what sparked engagement and concern.
“We’re just scared to death,” Jackson told city commissioners during the meeting. “We’re going to be pleasant. We’re going to be polite. We just want our voices to be heard.”
Although the city has a historic preservation board, it lacks teeth. The board can delay the demolition of a building for up to 90 days. But its authority stops there.
What’s more, not everything in the designated historic district — which includes a central business district spanning portions of Seventh, Eighth, Ninth and 10th avenues — falls under the purview of the historic board. Discrepancies in an ordinance passed in the early 2000s have made it unclear whether or not the proposed hotel will go before the historic board at all.
“It doesn’t make sense that the heartbeat of the historic district would be carved out from review by the historic preservation board,” board chair Chris Marone told commissioners.
Commissioners agreed. Mayor Al Johnson asked Marone to come back with recommendations for changes to the ordinance that could be discussed at a later date.
But former mayor Bob Douglass told the commission that he thought changes needed to go beyond expanding the board’s purview. That a project like the one being proposed was completely within the rights of the developer, he said, was a problem in itself. He asked the commission to consider adopting a new ordinance, expanding the power of the historic board.
“I think any plan for construction should go before the historic board,” Douglass said. “I think we need to go back to square one.”
Historic board member Holly Young agreed that she’d like to see the board have more oversight. But Young said discussions also need to be had about what is and isn’t historically significant as time passes, land becomes more valuable, and the threat of flooding becomes more severe.
“I think we’re going to have to redefine what historic preservation means in the future with FEMA rules,” Young said. “What are we going to value as worth saving?”
The historic preservation board met on Nov. 4. It voted to stay the demolition of the pink building on Eighth Avenue for 90 days — the limits of its authority — but also formally asked the City Commission to discuss providing the board with greater review powers.