Activists demand the city speeds up process of creating a Zion Cemetery Memorial Park

They want the city of Tampa to offer the property owners an immediate land swap.
A map of the Zion Cemetery graves that ground penetrating radar discovered.
A map of the Zion Cemetery graves that ground penetrating radar discovered. [ Courtesy of Cardno ]
Published Aug. 20, 2020|Updated Aug. 20, 2020

TAMPA — Feeling like the process of creating a memorial park on erased Zion Cemetery’s property is moving too slow, activists are demanding the city of Tampa expedite the process.

The city has already agreed to help form a nonprofit charged with buying the land along the 3700 block of N Florida Ave., which is now split between three owners. That is underway.

But members of a Zion advisory committee want the city to offer the owners a land swap deal and to do so immediately. The owners would receive city land and vacate their Zion property. The city would control Zion until the nonprofit is formed.

Demolition of the buildings on Zion’s land could begin as soon as the land is vacated and the park can be built.

“Can anybody explain to me why we haven’t moved forward on this?” Hillsborough County NAACP president Yvette Lewis said during the committee’s monthly meeting held virtually on Thursday. “We are just talking the talk and wasting our breath and my time.”

Assistant city attorney Toyin Aina–Hargrett told the meeting attendees that the city has not discussed that option with the property owners. She did not comment further.

Related: See how the story of forgotten cemeteries has unfolded in the Tampa Bay Times

Formed in July 2019 in reaction to a Tampa Bay Times report questioning if bodies were still there, the committee vowed at the first meeting to create a Zion memorial park if there were. Archaeologists confirmed the existence of coffins the next month with ground-penetrating radar.

Established in 1901, white developers later purchased the 2.5-acre cemetery and began building over it in 1929.

The city, knowing a cemetery was there, granted the building permits.

The headstones were removed but not the bodies.

The Tampa Housing Authority purchased a little less than half the Zion land in 1950 and built five of its 67 Robles Park Village apartment buildings on it. Human remains were discovered and identified as belonging to Zion during construction, but work was not halted.

Richard Gonzmart purchased around half of Zion’s land for warehouse space in 2016 and Dennis Creech bought a small piece for his tow lot that same year. Neither knew the property was once a cemetery.

The Housing Authority will donate their Zion land to the memorial park. Gonzmart and Creech have offered to sell their land.

The Hillsborough County Property Appraiser lists Creech’s property as worth $80,000 and Gonzmart’s $690,000.

But “their land is now worthless” because it is a cemetery, Reva Iman, president of the Robles Park Village Tenants Council, said. “Someone has to help those owners and the city is in a position to do that.”

Gonzmart could not be reached for comment.

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Creech is open to a land swap.

“I am okay with whatever we can do to resolve this,” he told the Times. “I just need something I can use for my towing business.”