A St. Pete church agreed to rezoning, land sale. Now it opposes its own deal.

Pastor Manuel Sykes of Bethel Community Baptist Church. [Times (2015)]
Pastor Manuel Sykes of Bethel Community Baptist Church. [Times (2015)]
Published June 13, 2018

ST. PETERSBURG — The Rev. Manuel Sykes won't say if he wants City Council to reject a rezoning proposal Thursday that would allow a developer to 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."

So why are Sykes and Bethel Community Baptist Church hoping the council axes their proposal to rezone the parcel off 54th Avenue S?

Because just three months after he and the church okayed the deal, Sykes said, they realized that the project could block the streetside view of their house of worship and that any revenue from the sale could be erased by resulting construction costs. The surrounding neighborhood opposes it, too.

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, according to city documents, and 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 from institutional use to commercial use would "really add value to our property," Sykes said.

But since then, he said, churchgoers have come to regret the deal. If it goes through, Sykes said, the church may have to rebuild lost parking spaces, which could eat up the church's profits from the sale.

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

The church isn't alone in questioning the proposal: Lakewood Estates residents spoke out against the rezoning at the June 7 council meeting. They plan to do so again when City Council is set to consider the proposal at 6 p.m. during Thursday's 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.

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," Leonard Coley told the council. "People travelling 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 civic association's concerns. At this point, he said, his parishioners want what the neighbors want: "They want to preserve ... and keep what we have."

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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."

Contact Justin Trombly at Follow @JustinTrombly.