ST. PETERSBURG — Along the shores of a murky drainage pond called Childs Park Lake is land that has defied the real estate slump.
Four modest homes have sold for an average of $123,850 since 2008. The city bought them and a weed-filled lot to clear the way for a park.
The sales are drastic outliers in a neighborhood struggling with high unemployment, drugs and foreclosures and where homes now sell for an average of $16,000.
While three of the homes have been demolished, one remains. A green concrete-block ranch house the city bought in December for $80,000. Officials justified the price with an appraisal done in October 2007 — before the bubble burst.
An e-mail from a city employee negotiating the purchase makes it clear this was no oversight. The city intended to pay an inflated price to Beverly Gray, whose home the Pinellas County Appraiser's Office now says has a market value of $24,000.
City officials say they didn't give Gray preferential treatment, even if she is the aunt of the man who oversees the Childs Park Lake project.
That would be Goliath Davis, a top city official and former police chief.
Davis, the senior administrator of the city's Community Enrichment department, said he was unaware that his aunt lived on the lake when he helped select the future park site in 2007. Once he found out, he said, he removed himself from the case by telling city officials he had a conflict.
"I didn't have any involvement because I told them not to mess with me because of the relationship," Davis said Thursday.
But city records suggest that an employee who was dealing with the transaction was mindful of Gray's financial interests — even at a time of stretched city budgets. In an October 2009 e-mail, Amy McGarr, an employee in the city's real estate department, warned Gray's daughter that the city needed to move fast on the deal.
"I spoke with your mother today about proceeding with the purchase of her house now before we change mayors and a new mayor does not want to proceed with the acquisition," McGarr wrote.
She told Gray's daughter that a new appraisal, which would save taxpayers money, would cost her mom.
"We will pay her the $80,000 it appraised for in 2007, as we would like to maximize the benefit to your mother with her purchase of a new home," McGarr wrote. "The (next-door neighbor's) new appraisal came in $25,000 less than the (2007) appraisal and that kind of hit would not be good for her."
McGarr's boss said the e-mail only suggests a negotiating tactic to coax Gray, who had been unwilling to sell.
"That was Amy's attempt to generate enthusiasm for the sale," said Bruce Grimes, director of the city's real estate and property management department. "Whether it was (Gray) or anyone else, they would have been treated the same way. Who this woman was had no influence. It was a nonissue to us."
Yet the Times discovered McGarr's e-mail only after Gray provided it. It had not been included in a file on the project the city provided for review.
"It should have been in the file," Grimes said.
• • •
Beverly Gray is a 65-year-old cafeteria worker who uses her Social Security payments to make ends meet. Since 1983, she has lived in an 840-square-foot two-bedroom, one-bath house on 43rd Street S.
"It's a nice place," Gray said while sitting on her front porch one evening this week. "But the park idea the city has will be a good thing."
In 1987, the city gave her a $12,219 housing assistance loan that she wasn't required to pay back if she stayed in the house for 20 years.
The city bought her house on Dec. 22 and has allowed her to live rent-free there since.
For months, city officials have looked for a new house for Gray, who is eligible for housing assistance. Recently, Gray found one she liked and will be moving later this month.
With her memories haunting the house she's leaving, Gray wonders if she's getting a good deal from the city.
"The price isn't right, but if I waited any longer, the price would be lower," Gray said.
She's paying $51,000 for the new house. Most of that will be paid with the money she received in the sale. The city will add $10,000 in down-payment assistance and another $20,000 for rehabilitation costs for things like new windows and an air-conditioning unit.
Gray said the process hasn't been influenced by Davis, who oversees housing assistance as well as the Childs Park project.
"Go had nothing to do with this," Gray said. "If he had, I would have ended up with more money."
She then laughs, making it clear she's joking.
• • •
In 2006, under then Mayor Rick Baker, Davis helped launch a plan to improve Childs Park. The city hosted workshops with neighbors and community leaders about ways to revitalize the area. The conclusions outlined a plan for the Childs Park Neighborhood Plaza. Located near the drainage pond, it would include picnic tables, boardwalks or fishing piers, boat and kayak ramps and a nature study center.
No money is available to build the park, but beginning in 2007, city officials had about $565,000 to purchase property for it. The job to find it was assigned to the city's real estate department.
When Davis found out his aunt's property was part of the desired site, he said, he told Thomas de Yampert, the manager of Housing and Community Development, that he couldn't be involved.
But Davis didn't put this disclosure in writing, and he doesn't remember when he made it. When de Yampert was asked if he recalled it, he said he didn't.
"If he said he did, he must've, but I don't recall," said de Yampert, whose immediate boss answers directly to Davis.
Initially Gray rejected the city's offer. She believed her house, which she co-owned with her daughter, Morlette, was worth more. The city had another holdout in the house next door. It was twice the size of Gray's house, and the city offered $170,000. The couple hired an attorney who argued that the true value of the home was actually $289,000.
Meanwhile, the city bought a house in March 2008 for $150,000 and another house in June the same year for $115,400. An empty lot was bought for $30,400.
When the real estate market collapsed, the couple that had been holding out approached the city, this time without the lawyer. Once they agreed to sell for $150,000, the city had a new incentive to again approach Gray.
It was the final days of the Baker administration, and Grimes said there was a rush.
"Mayor Baker wanted this project done on his watch, if that was possible," he said.
In addition to the time crunch, the city's real estate office likes to avoid conflict with property owners, refusing to use the powers of eminent domain to legally take land for a public purpose.
Even though the city could have done an appraisal and renegotiated the contract for less, it chose not to. Skipping a new appraisal saved time and potential conflict with a property owner, Grimes said.
"It accomplished the needs of everybody," Grimes said. "These are voluntary acquisitions for the good of the neighborhood, and it's hard to do that if you're leaving people in a worse position."
Mayor Bill Foster, who took office in January after the sale was approved, said based on what he knew about the purchase, he didn't object.
An attorney who has practiced real estate law for 20 years, Foster said if the city were more aggressive in buying properties, there would be a cost to that, too.
"I've seen eminent domain cases where the legal fees exceeded the price of the property," Foster said. "I don't smell a scandal here. There are so many eyeballs on these transactions that I don't worry about issues where favoritism might be involved. It's not an issue here."
Times researcher Natalie Watson contributed to this report. Michael Van Sickler can be reached at (727) 893-8037 or [email protected]