Peter Belmont: The Key to Keeping St. Pete Special
You may not be personally familiar with Peter Belmont, but chances are you’ve come across the fruits of his 40 years of volunteer labor in St. Petersburg. Have you ever attended Movies in the Park? Or taken a walking tour with Preserve the ‘Burg? Maybe you’ve shopped in the Crislip Arcade or sipped a drink on the verandah of the Vinoy. If so, then you’ve had a brush with Belmont’s legacy. Over his decades of activism, Belmont has left such a mark on the city that his recent cancer diagnosis prompted a flurry of efforts by friends and admirers to honor his work. Most recently, he was awarded the key to the city in recognition of the enormous contributions he has made to St. Petersburg.
Robin Reed, a resident of the Historic Old Northeast neighborhood and president of the board of directors of Preserve the ‘Burg, led the process to have Belmont awarded the key. She said, “For decades now, Peter has been the driving force for preservation in St. Pete. Without his tireless leadership, we would not have many of the historic buildings and spaces that contribute so much to our city’s unique character and sense of place. We owe him a huge debt of gratitude.”
Ironically, like many St. Pete residents, Belmont is not originally from the city he has done so much to preserve. Born in Ridgewood, New Jersy in the mid 1950s, he began visiting the Sunshine State early, spending many a holiday with his grandmother locally.
Belmont’s father instilled a love of both nature and activism in him at an early age, as he took him on many outdoor adventures out west, both with the Wilderness Society and the Boy Scouts of America. Together, father and son also participated in workshops in Washington, D.C. that taught lobbying techniques for the environmental movement, training that would prove handy in later years.
Belmont’s liberal leanings brought him to Florida Presbyterian College, which was renamed while he was in school there; he graduated in the first class of the newly christened Eckerd College, where he majored in political science. Knowing that a law degree would be a useful tool for his activism, he attended Stetson Law School and Florida State University College of Law. An internship at the public defender’s office in Bradenton turned into a lifelong career where he developed a reputation for his trial skills and was frequently assigned the most serious cases in the county. Belmont valued the flexibility of his position in Bradenton because it allowed him to pursue the activism that has always been the driving force in his life.
Belmont’s activism started early in the Sunshine City. While still a law student living in St. Petersburg’s Roser Park, Peter was a founding member of Booker Creek Preservation, an organization working to preserve the neighborhood’s historic character. Belmont and the group championed the fight against interstate-related road projects and expansion from nearby Bayfront and All Children’s hospitals that threatened the historic fabric of the neighborhood. Their work saved many historic homes and led to the declaration of Roser Park as the city’s first local historic district.
Before he had even passed the bar exam Belmont was called “one of the hardest working environmentalists this city has ever known” in a 1981 profile written by Jeff Klinkenberg in the St. Petersburg Times. Klinkenberg noted that Belmont was known as “a hero by some, and a crybaby conservationist” by others. And he was just getting started.
Deeply concerned by the destruction wrought by construction of the new interstate highway system, Belmont and another young attorney successfully argued for changes to the off-ramps near Maximo Park, reducing their scope and helping to save both the Native American Shell Mounds at that site, as well as a local marina. That work also resulted in the creation of a bicycle and pedestrian trail near Frenchman’s Creek and the Bayway, and preserved recreational access along the Sunshine Skyway causeway.
In 1977, spurred by the impending demolition of downtown’s American Bank and Trust building, a group of concerned citizens formed St. Petersburg Preservation, Inc (now Preserve the ‘Burg), an organization in which Belmont has played a lifelong leadership role. Belmont also helped form Save our St. Petersburg, in the late 1980s, which sought changes to the Bay Plaza Company’s plans for redeveloping downtown, while also advocating for the preservation of both the Detroit and Soreno Hotels (where he had spent many happy visits with his grandmother as a child). Around that same time, Belmont also helped lead the fight against the high-rise “monster towers” proposed by a developer on the site of the Vinoy Hotel, representing a citizen’s group in a title lawsuit that played into the eventual preservation of the Vinoy. As part of the settlement of that case, the city agreed to create a local historic preservation ordinance, a tool that may be Belmont’s most important legacy in the city. It has led to the successful preservation of hundreds of local landmarks, and numerous local historic districts.
St. Petersburg historian Ray Arsenault helped form Save our St. Petersburg alongside Belmont. “I got to know Peter during the SOS battles of the late 80s and early 90s. He was always the rock upon which we operated. I don’t know what we would have done without him. He was seemingly everywhere, the most important person in cutting our way through the local ordinances and mobilizing people to save the heritage of the city. He was the indispensable man. I have such enormous respect for him; he has always been there when he was needed.”
Efforts to protect the Soreno Hotel from demolition by Bay Plaza were ultimately unsuccessful, but Save our St. Petersburg’s work harnessed significant citizen resistance to the project, culminating in the preservation of several threatened historic blocks in downtown when the Bay Plaza Company abandoned their efforts. The hyper-local renaissance that downtown has experienced over the past 20 years can be seen as a direct testament to the work of Belmont and many others to prevent outside influences from destroying the unique character of St. Petersburg.
One of Belmont’s proudest achievements is St. Petersburg Preservation’s work to save the historic Crislip Arcade, the anchor of the 600 Block of Central Avenue. Alarmed by a demolition permit filed for the property, he prompted St. Petersburg Preservation to file a historic landmark application for the arcade, leading to a compromise that preserved the buildings and inspired a renaissance of that section of Central Avenue. It is now one of the most vibrant and charming locations in the city.
A dedicated environmentalist, Belmont has been an important legal advocate for several wildlife and environmental organizations in the state, including multiple Florida chapters of the Sierra Club. Over the years he sought protection for manatees, successfully fought the phosphate industry, and consistently advocated for wetlands protection. He has always practiced what he preached and is often seen whipping around St. Petersburg on his bicycle or driving one of the first hybrid cars. He has a deep love of bicycle touring and saw the country and the world on two wheels, frequently on the tandem bike he shares with his partner of 40 years, Laurie Macdonald.
Along with several friends, Belmont built his townhome in the heart of downtown St. Petersburg decades before moving downtown was in vogue. It’s just one of many examples of his near-prophetic sense of what people are seeking in a community. His arguments against things like superfluous interstate offramps and the demolition of historic buildings to make way for surface parking have proved prescient, and the community is richer for the many historic sites he successfully saved.
Belmont’s cancer diagnosis came while he was at his summer home in Hood River, Oregon. Surgery was not a viable option, and at first it seemed that other treatments would likely prove futile on his aggressive tumor. In recent weeks, however, he has regained strength and stamina and is now undergoing immunotherapy treatments. His many friends, and even detractors who have taken exception to his views on historic preservation and environmentalism over the years, hope to see his bearded, smiling face once more on the streets of St. Petersburg, a city that he has done so much to define. Friend and fellow preservationist Emily Elwyn, speaking at the key-to-the-city event, summed up many people’s feelings about him: “We need more people like Peter Belmont in our city, willing to do the hard work to keep St. Petersburg the special place that it is.”