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Clearwater said no to Church of Scientology, yes to affordable housing

But the proposed complex on land controlled by the city will need to win $17 million in tax credits to become a reality.
The 40-year-old Fire Station on Franklin, which could be the future site of an affordable housing development -- if the city's developer can win some major tax credits.
The 40-year-old Fire Station on Franklin, which could be the future site of an affordable housing development -- if the city's developer can win some major tax credits. [ Clearwater Fire & Rescue ]
Published Oct. 15, 2019

CLEARWATER ― Earlier this year, the Church of Scientology expressed interest in a piece of city-owned land near the organization’s Flag Building downtown.

The City Council said no.

After a unanimous vote Monday, that land, previously a fire station at 610 Franklin St., is set to be turned into an affordable housing complex.

If the affordable housing developer on the project, Blue Sky Communities, can win the necessary tax credits from the state, it will build 81 units. They’ll be occupied by renters making between 30 and 80 percent of the median area income ― between $20,000 and $55,000 for a family of up to four, said Amanda Thompson, director of the city’s Community Redevelopment Agency.

The City Council, which serves as the board of the redevelopment agency, agreed to sell the land to Blue Sky for $2 million. The Pinellas County Property Appraiser values the property at $2,161,834.

RELATED STORY: Clearwater rejects Scientology’s bid for former fire station

The former Fire Station 45 has been vacant for half a decade. In January, Clearwater put out a call for letters of interest from developers looking to transform the parcel into a retail outfit.

It got one response, from the Church of Scientology. In that letter, the church expressed interest in building a community cultural center, which would have been operated by the religious organization and an unnamed nonprofit.

The proposal was noteworthy because 610 Franklin St. is bordered on two sides by major Scientology concerns. To the west is the church’s seven-story, 300,000-square-foot Flag Building. To the south, Scientology owns a vacant lot where it plans to build a 4,000-seat auditorium, which will be named after the church’s founder, L. Ron Hubbard.

The City Council rebuffed the church’s idea in May. Thompson said the city would have more seriously considered a bid from Scientology had it been a for-profit endeavor.

Scientology spokesman Ben Shaw did not respond to a request for comment.

RELATED STORY: Church of Scientology takes aim at Clearwater Marine Aquarium after being denied land

In August, Clearwater put out a new call for affordable housing developers to build on the land. Three answered. Thompson said Blue Sky was chosen because the organization has experience winning government tax credits for affordable housing.

The city may need to leverage all of that experience. Blue Sky is asking the state for about $17 million in tax credits for the $22 million project. The organization will be competing with affordable housing projects across the state for the same relatively shallow pool of money. The Florida Housing Finance Corporation noted it has about $18.1 million in available affordable housing tax credits this year for Broward, Duval, Hillsborough, Orange, Palm Beach, and Pinellas Counties ― combined.

Shawn Wilson, the president and CEO of Blue Sky Communities, said if the project is chosen, his firm would collect the credits over a number of years.

“It’s a 10-year stream of credits,” Wilson said. “So, we are seeking about $17 million of $180 million. That’s one way to look at it.”

RELATED STORY: More Tampa Bay renters, fewer places they can afford

If a housing development is built, the former fire station would be torn down. Construction will begin by April 1, 2021, and be substantially finished by April 1, 2023.

Thompson said the tax credits are essential to the project. If Blue Sky doesn’t win them, the city could be back to square one at 610 Franklin St.

“In order for it to be affordable, it will require subsidy,” Thompson said.

Times Staff Writer Tracey McManus contributed to this report.