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Historic downtown Tampa church votes to make way for residential development

The First Presbyterian Church has been in downtown Tampa since 1884. Its congregation voted to sell the property Sunday to a developer for $10.2 million, which will be shared by the other owners of the city block bounded by Marion Street, Zack Street, Polk Street and Florida Avenue. A residential project is planned. [Charlie Frago| Times]
The First Presbyterian Church has been in downtown Tampa since 1884. Its congregation voted to sell the property Sunday to a developer for $10.2 million, which will be shared by the other owners of the city block bounded by Marion Street, Zack Street, Polk Street and Florida Avenue. A residential project is planned. [Charlie Frago| Times]
Published May 23, 2019

TAMPA — It started with a knock on the office door last summer at the First Presbyterian Church on Zack Street downtown.

After many prayers, what the Rev. Fitz Conner describes as an unexpected journey ended Sunday when his congregation voted to sell the historic church to a developer for nearly $5 million.

If the sale is finalized, the church property could become the latest in a series of historic buildings in the northern downtown business district to be reimagined as residential or entertainment spaces.

The agreement with Property Markets Group isn't final, but it's expected to be soon, Conner said. Meanwhile, the congregation of about 615 people will begin looking for a new spiritual home in the coming months.

Along with the owners of vacant buildings on the western half of the parcel, whom Conner said partnered with the church on the sale, the entire downtown block bordered by Florida Avenue and Zack, Polk and Marion Streets will be remade into a residential project. The $10.2 million total purchase price has been agreed to in principle, Conner said.

Conner said he's been told the Mediterranean Revival sanctuary and former manse, where ministers lived with their families for decades, will be preserved while the rest of the block will be leveled. The church property — with an assessed value of $3.25 million— is exempt from property taxes so whatever is built will likely bolster city revenues. The other half of the block is owned by the Maggiora family and is currently vacant two- and three-story office and retail space.

A Property Markets Group representative declined comment Thursday. A Maggiora family representative could not be reached for comment.

"We've prayed, fasted and pondered this for many months," Conner said. "It's the start of a adventurous journey for us."

The church is searching for a new location, though it should be able to stay in its current one for the time being. The plan is to find a new home no farther away than its current location for the 70 percent of its parishioners who live in South Tampa, Conner said.

The church was originally founded in a nearby wooden frame house in 1884 when the city was just beginning to transform from a small port and fishing community. That same year, Henry B. Plant extended his rail line to the Hillsborough River. The current building is nearly a century old, dating to 1922.

In recent years, the northeastern section of downtown has seen a spurt of adaptive reuse and rehabilitated buildings. The Vault, a high-end event space a block to the southwest, was once a bank. Across the street from the church is Le Méridien, a boutique hotel in the old federal courthouse constructed in 1905.

Bob McDonaugh, the city's economic opportunity administrator, said in an email that he hadn't seen the plans for the First Presbyterian block but said the trend is a welcome one. And residential projects have found a receptive market, especially with a strong demand from a younger demographic, he said.

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"Several years ago, Debra Koehler and her partners did a similar project with Metro 510 (510 E. Harrison St.). That project saved a historic church and provided affordable housing to downtown,'' McDonaugh said. "There is a market for several price points and amenity packages for downtown workers and students and it sounds as if that project will have no problems finding residents."

The church's historic past may well serve its future. A historic property that is being restored can apply for a special exemption that freezes its value for 10 years, McDonaugh said.

Contact Charlie Frago at cfrago@tampabay.com or (727)893-8459. Follow@CharlieFrago.