TAMPA — With a busy off-ramp just 50 feet away, the former church on Palm Avenue exists in the shadow of Interstate 275, and for two decades the state has planned to bulldoze the red-brick building to make way for a major highway expansion.
But over the last five years, the Tampa Heights Junior Civic Association has invested thousands of volunteer hours and attracted an estimated $1 million in donated materials and services to create a community center.
The result so far: What was the sanctuary of the old Faith Temple Missionary Baptist Church is now an airy meeting room. Old church pews have been remade into a stage. Arched windows have been restored. The computer room has no desks, but kids lie on the floor to use two rows of computers.
Still, this month, the civic association got a reminder — not the first — that its success is on a collision course with the state's plan for the Tampa Bay Express interstate expansion.
On Nov. 11, City Hall sent the association a cease-and-desist notice for three partially constructed projects at the old church: a commercial kitchen, a small recording studio and an aquaculture pond and greenhouse in a nearby community garden.
On Friday, the association responded, saying in a letter that it had undertaken the three projects to help at-risk students in Tampa Heights and "respectfully" asked for approval to continue the work.
The stop-work order came as a surprise, civic leaders say.
"It was strange, to say the least," association president Lena Young Green said.
It shouldn't have been, say city and Florida Department of Transportation officials.
That's because FDOT acquired the church building in 2006 with plans to tear it down as part of the Tampa Bay Express expansion of the Malfunction Junction interchange.
In 2010, the FDOT leased the old church to the city of Tampa, which, in turn, leased it to the Tampa Heights Junior Civic Association to use as a community center and green space.
Moreover, officials note, the leases say the civic association needed to get the city and state's permission before making any changes to the property.
That didn't happen, officials said.
"DOT advised us that there was work being done on that building that was in violation of the agreement, and they wanted to make sure that the civic association did not get too far down the road spending money on a building that is going to be torn down and that the association doesn't own," Mayor Bob Buckhorn said last week.
While the civic association got city building permits for interior remodeling, officials say that doesn't count as the kind of notification specified by the lease.
"Everyone from day one has been aware of what the rules were and what the ultimate outcome of that building was going to be," Buckhorn said. "We all recognize that there's a need for a community center out there, but that doesn't mean you can take somebody else's property and alter it … without permission."
DOT officials said the first they knew of the extent of the renovations was early this year, when they met with Tampa Heights residents at the center for a meeting about Tampa Bay Express.
"I was like, 'Oh my goodness. What has been going on here?' " said Debbie Hunt, the director of transportation development for FDOT's district office in Tampa. "The transformation truly was amazing."
At that meeting, Hunt said, she reminded the group that the department owned the building. FDOT had previously reminded the civic association about the restriction on making unapproved changes in a May 2013 email.
The civic association says nothing it has done should surprise anyone.
It asked to use the church building in 2008. Negotiating the lease agreement took two years, Green said, and required providing detailed financial statements and other information about the group's intentions. And it already had a community plan that called for establishing a community center for Tampa Heights.
Why, she asked, would the association request a boarded-up and vandalized building if it did not plan to do the renovations necessary to use it?
"We have not hidden what we're doing," she said. "We are following our neighborhood plan. … Our board wants to focus on our kids."
When the civic association signed the lease, the building had no windows, doors, air-conditioning or electrical service, civic association board member and architect John Tennison said, so of course it needed to be remodeled.
"To assume that we had intended to use a building like that without any improvements would have been just silly," he said. The association has sought support and publicity for renovations that have been going on for years.
"It was a surprise to us" to hear officials say they were unaware of the work, Tennison said. "It'd be kind of hard to miss."
Along the way, the civic association has won grants and gotten donations of goods and professional services. The building's carpeting, for example, is surplus yardage from the new Le Méridien boutique hotel in Tampa's old federal courthouse.
Now one major supporter has had second thoughts in light of City Hall's cease-and-desist order.
Columbia Restaurant Group president Richard Gonzmart had talked to Green about donating a commercial kitchen to the project, and the space is being roughed out.
But after learning about the city's letter, Gonzmart said last week that it would be irresponsible to donate $100,000 in equipment to a building destined to be torn down in several years.
"Shame on me for not checking to see if they own the property," said Gonzmart, who appears in a YouTube fundraising video on behalf of the civic association. "If I had known that, I would have never made that commitment."
Still, Gonzmart said he has the "utmost respect" for Green, agrees that Tampa Heights needs the kind of hospitality industry job training they've discussed and is looking to pursue that sort of project, although at a nearby location.
The Tampa Bay Express project is still about five years off, depending on how soon FDOT gets the $3.3 billion it needs for the multipart project. One part would be rebuilding and expanding Malfunction Junction, which is expected to cost $1.8 billion.
After getting the city's Nov. 11 letter, the association's board held an emergency meeting to draft the response released Friday.
Projects like the recording studio and aquaculture pond are part of a broad range of activities — including after-school tutoring and STEM-focused enrichment — that the center offers to K-12 students, many from families that struggle financially, association vice chairman Pablo Aviles wrote.
"In working with our kids, we bring an awareness of opportunities of which they might otherwise not be aware," Aviles wrote. "These not only include potential career opportunities, but also quality of life choices. It was for these reasons that we have included in our construction effort the three spaces that you addressed."
Those are all worthy goals, Buckhorn acknowledged, but he said at the moment, they don't change the facts.
"What is indisputable is they don't own the building, and DOT bought the building to tear it down," he said. "There is nothing that is going to change that fundamental fact."