The St. Paul African Methodist Episcopal Church, a red brick W-shaped structure at Harrison and Morgan streets, has been central to change since it was built in 1906.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. made one of his earliest civil rights speeches there. Jackie Robinson, Ray Charles, Jesse Jackson and U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall all visited the church at some point.
George E. Edgecomb assembled a group in the sanctuary that marched to the Woolworth lunch counter to protest segregation. Arthenia Joyner remembers. She was a participant who became a state senator. Edgecomb, meanwhile, became Hillsborough County's first African-American judge.
But over the years the influential church in downtown Tampa grew empty. Urban renewal, the creation of interstates that sliced through downtown neighborhoods, suburban flight and the development of shopping malls pushed congregants away. The church closed last year.
St. Paul AME could have been mothballed into another abandoned building with boarded-up history. Instead, it was redeveloped this year and, once again, serves as a central player of change.
The historic church has been preserved and turned into a community center for a development wrapped around it: The six-story Metro 510 apartment complex.
The 120-unit project is downtown's first affordable housing development intended to draw a slice of Hillsborough's working class to the area.
While recent high rises such as SkyPoint and Element and the Towers of Channelside have led the repopulation efforts of downtown, they cater primarily to mid- to upper-class residents.
Metro 510, with rents between $588 and $808 and an income limit of $23,760 for a one-bedroom apartment, fills another niche in downtown's redevelopment effort. Of about 4,300 residents living downtown, just 11 percent make less than $50,000 a year, according to a Tampa Downtown Partnership survey this year.
At Metro 510's grand opening last week, Mayor Bob Buckhorn called the project part of Tampa's efforts to make sure downtown is "not leaving anyone behind."
"We're not talking about another luxury high rise where we can't even walk in the front door," said Karen Jackson Sims, U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development deputy regional administrator.
Developers call Metro 510 "workforce housing" for nurses, teachers, service workers and police officers, conveniently situated next to the Marion Transit Center bus terminal.
The church-turned-community-center features restored stained-glass windows, massive eye-catching ceiling fans that are both functional and stylish and words from King's famous "I have a dream" speech painted on a rainbow-colored wall. A computer lab of flat screens and a small gym with modern treadmills await on the first floor of the church. The adjoining apartment units, meanwhile, feature wood floors, white book cases, glass shelves, tract lighting, stacked washers and dryers, steel sinks, granite countertops and dark wood cabinets.
Reaction has been swift since Metro 510 began leasing in October. More than 50 percent of units are leased with 25 percent occupied.
"I love it," said Pete Edwards, a 60-year-old semi-retired handyman who lives on the third-floor. "Entry-level people like myself are excited they are included. You can't have a city downtown where you exclude anybody. It's just not going to grow."
Having been a lifetime member of St. Paul AME, Edwards knows downtown's history well. The church's preservation was a big reason he signed up as a resident, and he said the spirit of the church remains intact even if congregations no longer meet there on Sundays.
The Rev. Bryant Fayson, the church's last pastor, had bittersweet feelings about its redevelopment. But he called Metro 510 the church's "return to glory" because it will again serve the disenfranchised.
"It adds vibrancy and economic feasibility," he said, "giving people housing to work and live downtown."
Justin George can be reached at (813) 226-3368 or email@example.com.