A St. Pete church opposes its own land deal. Will council go along?

Pastor Manuel Sykes of Bethel Community Baptist Church during an April meeting at Tropicana Field. [DIRK SHADD   |   Times]
Pastor Manuel Sykes of Bethel Community Baptist Church during an April meeting at Tropicana Field. [DIRK SHADD | Times]
Published June 18 2018
Updated June 19 2018

ST. PETERSBURG — The Rev. Manuel Sykes wouldn’t say last week whether he wanted City Council to reject a rezoning proposal that would let a developer build a drive-thru restaurant on his church’s land.

He wouldn’t mind, though, if a little divine intervention came his way.

"It would seem like God’s direction if it didn’t happen," he said. "Then the people would be pleased."

The divine took place during the June 14 council meeting at 6:54 p.m. in City Hall. Council members were set to take a final vote on the rezoning but instead delayed their decision for five more weeks after learning Sykes no longer supports his own deal.

So why do the pastor and his congregation at Bethel Community Baptist Church hope the council will axe their proposal for the parcel off 54th Avenue S?

That’s complicated.

• • •

Let’s rewind to before the June 14 meeting:

When Sykes signed the paperwork in March, he said, the deal seemed like a good way for the struggling church to stockpile funds.

The developer would buy half an acre and, according to city documents, explore building a small drive-thru restaurant on it. To sweeten the pot, the developer would also help the church petition the city to rezone that parcel and a 3.8-acre area encompassing it.

Switching part of the church’s 12-acre plot to commercial use would "really add value to our property," Sykes said.

But since then, he said, churchgoers have come to regret the deal. They realized the project could block the streetside view of their house of worship, and they don’t want to lose any more of their land.

And if the deal goes through, Sykes said, the church may have to rebuild lost parking spaces, which could eat up any profits from the sale.

If given a second chance, "we probably wouldn’t have approved it," he explained, adding that his congregation agreed: "They don’t feel that it’s a good swap."

The church hasn’t been alone in questioning the proposal: Residents who live in nearby Lakewood Estates spoke out against the rezoning at the June 7 council meeting.

"There isn’t a single person in Lakewood so far who has expressed any support for this," Judy Ellis, president of the neighborhood’s civic association, told the Tampa Bay Times before the June 14 meeting.

She added: "We don’t want this to be developed into any commercial property, ever. Period."

Ellis and three other residents — the trio lives on Bethel Court, near the church — told council members on June 7 they worry commercial development could further clog traffic at the intersection of 54th Avenue S and 31st Street S.

"There are many challenges that exist in that area at 54th Avenue S," resident Leonard Coley told the council. "People traveling in wheelchairs, we have our children taking this path to school, and then we have the quagmire of people trying to get out of the two gas stations on 31st Street."

Sykes said he understands the association’s concerns. At this point, he said, his parishioners want what the neighbors want: "They want to preserve ... and keep what we have."

But he told the Times he’s sticking by his word: "We can’t go back and renege on the contract."

The developer declined to comment about the church’s about-face.

"Nobody wants this," Ellis said. "I just wish Manny would tell somebody."

• • •

Turns out, he did.

Sykes texted Council member Steve Kornell about the issue.

"Our church really doesn’t want to sell that property," Sykes texted Kornell, who read the text into the record at the June 14 meeting. "Vote no on the rezone if possible."

Kornell recounted: "I then called Pastor Sykes and just said, ‘Did I hear this right? This (June 7) meeting we just had, now you don’t want to do it?’ And he said yes."

Council member Darden Rice said she got a text, too.

"This is a delicate matter but we are asking you to vote ‘no’ to the change," Sykes texted Rice, who also read her text into the record.

Those revelations came after Derek Kilborn, the city’s urban planning and historic preservation manager, advised the council to postpone its vote.

"Since the … public hearing, there have been a couple things that have come up," Kilborn said.

First, he said, opponents had requested a meeting with the church and the developer.

"The second thing that has come up is that new information was presented earlier today to the city staff indicating that the property owner has possibly amended support for their own application," he said, referring to Sykes’ change of heart.

So, on Kilborn’s suggestion, the council unanimously pushed back its decision to the later date. Council member Amy Foster was absent for the vote.

Neither Ellis nor Coley from Lakewood Estates spoke that evening, despite sitting in the gallery. City staff told them that if they did, they would be giving up their chance to speak on the date of the decision.

But Ellis had her say in the hallway minutes later, when she sparred with Dustin Rood, a representative for the developer.

Ellis asked the developer’s rep why they would keep pursuing a deal no one else wants.

Replied Rood: "I just get paid to show up and do the documents."

Contact Justin Trombly at [email protected] Follow @JustinTrombly.