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Potential Clearwater cemetery puts affordable housing project on hold

“If it takes a little extra time, it takes a little extra time.”
A cemetery once was located where there are now parking spaces next to a vacant Pinellas County School District building in Clearwater. The cemetery was moved, but questions have been raised about whether bodies may have been left behind.
A cemetery once was located where there are now parking spaces next to a vacant Pinellas County School District building in Clearwater. The cemetery was moved, but questions have been raised about whether bodies may have been left behind. [ SCOTT KEELER | Times ]
Published Jan. 30, 2020
Updated Jan. 30, 2020

CLEARWATER — A groundbreaking partnership between Pinellas County schools, the city of Clearwater and a local homelessness nonprofit has been temporarily put on hold while officials make sure no bodies are buried on a key piece of land.

The city, the school district and the Homeless Empowerment Program announced in July they would team up on what is believed to be a first-of-its kind project. The school district planned to lease a parcel just west of the nonprofit’s North Greenwood campus to the nonprofit. The Homeless Empowerment Program would then build as many as 39 affordable housing units on the lot. Included in the property leased to the nonprofit would be a nearby 1.3-acre lot donated by the city to the school district.

In return, the school district would agree to run the nonprofit’s adult education programs. For those at the city concerned about a lack of affordable housing, and for those in the school district worried about a lack of entry-level workers, the agreement appeared to check all boxes.

Related: Clearwater, Pinellas schools and a nonprofit team up to fight homelessness. Here's how.

But in December, Zebbie Atkinson, president of the Clearwater/Upper Pinellas branch of the NAACP, called for an investigation into an historic, unnamed African American burial ground near Holt Avenue and Engman Street. What was once that graveyard is now a series of parking spaces on the parcel the school district planned to donate to the nonprofit.

Atkinson said he wanted to make sure that graves that were purported to have been moved from the cemetery in 1954 were, in fact, moved.

His call came after months of reporting by the Tampa Bay Times about developments built on historic African American graveyards all over the Tampa Bay region. For instance, developments were built atop hundreds of graves in the old Zion Cemetery in Tampa.

The city of Clearwater, the school district and the nonprofit all agreed to put the affordable housing project on hold until officials know whether bodies are buried on the school district lot.

“They’re aware and they want to rectify the situation, if there’s anything to rectify,” Atkinson said. “Hopefully there’s not.”

The school district and the city have agreed to split the approximately $36,000 cost of a ground penetrating radar investigation of the site, said Tara Kivett, Clearwater’s engineering director. The consulting firm Cardno has been commissioned to do the scan. It should take 60 to 90 days, City Manager Bill Horne said.

Clint Herbic, the associate superintendent for Pinellas schools, acknowledged that if officials find bodies, the project’s future would become uncertain. But for now, he said the school district and the nonprofit were content to await the results of the investigation.

“If it takes a little extra time, it takes a little extra time,” Herbic said.