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  1. St. Petersburg

St. Petersburg church's change of heart kills affordable housing deal

A deal to tear down Grace Connection Church, 635 64th St. S, to build affordable housing is apparently dead after the church made a deal with another congregation for the property. [DIRK SHADD | Times]
Published May 13

ST. PETERSBURG — Grace Connection Church, which had agreed to sell the city of St. Petersburg its almost 5-acre property near Bear Creek for affordable housing, has withdrawn its offer amid an outcry from neighbors and an eleventh-hour, alternate offer.

The announcement came hours before St. Petersburg officials were to discuss the plan Monday evening at a meeting organized by Gulfport Vice Mayor Paul Ray, whose constituents had raised concerns about the development that would border their community.

Pastor Tim Kelley said his cash-strapped church at 635 64th St. S, which had been trying to sell the property for the past two years, had just received an offer from a larger St. Petersburg congregation and planned to accept it. The offer is less than the $1.8 million the city was planning to pay for the property, on which it planned to build a multistory development with about 86 affordable and workforce housing units. Money to buy the land was to come from $15 million in Penny for Pinellas funds earmarked for land acquisition for affordable housing. The city planned to lease the church property to a developer to build and manage the project.The contract to buy the land was to go before the City Council on Thursday.

"The offer seems like it's more workable for us," Kelley said. "The property will get some fixes and it looks like we will be on the property, sharing with the other church."

The pastor had previously said that that his congregation was too small for the 500-seat sanctuary and couldn't afford to fix the property's code violations. He declined to name the prospective buyer.

"We have a handshake and a hug,'' he said. "We want it to happen. It's a good fit for us and a good fit for them."

Neighboring residents had been outraged at the plan to build affordable housing in their mostly single-family community, saying that it would be detrimental to the area, increase traffic, affect the environment and devalue their property. About 500 people packed the church about a month ago when city officials showed up to share details about the project. The three-hour session was punctuated with angry outbursts.

Mayor Rick Kriseman issued a statement Monday in response to the scuttled deal. "Housing affordability remains a priority for me and I am committed to ensuring that everyone who wants to live in St. Pete is able to do so," he said.

"Unfortunately, NIMBYISM is real. We need our residents to be open minded to affordable housing, because the reality is this would have provided seniors or educators, firefighters, nurses and other hardworking residents with a quality place to live. The work to accomplish this continues and we will only be able to provide housing affordability if the entire community is committed to doing so."

A group calling themselves Pasadena Gulfport St. Petersburg Neighbors Unite issued a statement of their own, saying they are pleased that the church had withdrawn its offer to sell its property to the city.

"Our neighbors came together against the city's proposal to demolish a church and replace it with a multistory, multifamily complex in a single-family neighborhood." they said.

"We will continue to monitor proposed developments around St. Petersburg and we will support other neighbors who face zoning changes not consistent with the scale and character of their neighborhood."

St. Petersburg Council chair Charlie Gerdes, a proponent of affordable housing, had attended the tense meeting at Grace Connection Church. He is pleased that the city administration had been willing to "take bold steps to carry out the council's decision to prioritize affordable housing" he said. "We have an affordable housing problem in our city....We learned a lot. We are going forward."

Things will probably calm down for Kelley, who has had to listen to his neighbors' protests.

"I'll probably sleep better," he said.

Contact Waveney Ann Moore at wmoore@tampabay.com or (727) 892-2283. Follow @wmooretimes.

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