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Plans at St. Peter's cause deep rift

Those on each side go to Mayor Rick Baker to urge a delay or a push forward in creating more space and parking, plus condos.

Published February 8, 2006

ST. PETERSBURG - A downtown congregation's struggle for upgraded facilities and additional parking has deteriorated into a war of words between members who want to move forward with a multimillion-dollar project and others who call it foolhardy.

Those who oppose the project being planned by St. Peter's Episcopal Cathedral have appealed to Mayor Rick Baker and the City Council to delay the plan that includes allowing a developer to erect a high-rise condominium on church property.

But on Friday, St. Peter's dean, the Very Rev. Russell L. Johnson, met with the mayor to say his 900-member congregation was ready to proceed. The cathedral is expected to request a certificate of appropriateness this month to demolish the historic former Baptist sanctuary it owns. Demolition of the sanctuary is crucial to the cathedral's redevelopment plans.

St. Peter's first fought preservationists intent on saving the former First Baptist Church. Now, the long-delayed project is being threatened by bitter internal disagreements from those who say St. Peter's is ceding valuable downtown land to a developer and spending money it doesn't have for a fraction of what it needs. Opponents also are proposing an alternative plan they say is cheaper and would keep the congregation from going into debt.

"I don't want the project halted. I do want some reconsideration of what we should be doing," said Peter Lilly, a longtime parishioner who recently announced he was leaving the church. "The concern I have is, we can't pay for it. ... At the present time, we can't even afford to operate."

Cathedral leaders counter that they've made the best possible deal to get the updated facilities St. Peter's needs if it is to remain a viable congregation downtown.

The plan, Johnson wrote in a letter to parishioners, "provides for the facilities that will guarantee our future, as both a parish church and as the cathedral for this diocese. We'll finally have functional, modern, clean, safe, inviting space for offices ... and enough parking to function daily."

St. Peter's has an agreement with Cathedral Partners LLC, a subsidiary of the Bullard Group, to build a condominium tower on part of its property, which includes the former First Baptist Church. Under the agreement, St. Peter's would get space for a parish hall, nursery, kitchen and new chapel. The congregation also would get about 35 parking spaces, a number opponents say is far short of the 200 or so the church actually needs. In return, St. Peter's would give the developer about $5-million and the property on which the condominium will stand.

"It's an open-ended contract for the developer to revise as he sees fit," said Marie Miller Dahm, a real estate broker whose roots run deep at St. Peter's.

Last year William H. Mills Sr., a retired businessman, told fellow parishioners in a letter that the plan would lock St. Peter's into "a high risk future."

A recent letter he signed with four other parishioners appealed to the mayor to reject the church's "unsound" plan. The cathedral has been unable to raise the $5-million it needs for the project and will have to dip into endowments and secure a mortgage, the letter said. It also referred to "a cloak of secrecy" involving details of the project.

The letter writers, Mills, Dahm, Lilly, Donald Jenkins and Thomas E. McLean Sr., want the City Council to reject the current plan or give St. Peter's time to amend it to include a 200-space parking garage. They also want council members to force St. Peter's to provide "satisfactory evidence" that the cathedral "would withstand the seismic effects" of putting a high-rise condo on its property. In addition, they want St. Peter's to demonstrate that parishioners agree with its plans.

Johnson, the cathedral's dean, dismisses the group's alternative plan and its promise of 200 parking spaces as "a pipe dream."

He said there might be a way to supplement the 35 spaces in the current plan. "We hope to leverage our relationship with the developer to have more parking," he said. "We wouldn't own those."

Johnson said parishioners support the current plan and have pledged more to support the cathedral's daily operations this year than they did a year ago. The response has also been good for the capital campaign, he said. Johnson worries, though, what would happen if St. Peter's is unable to proceed with the current project.

"I think that if the cathedral cannot find a way to make this plan work that there's a very good chance that St. Peter's cannot exist in the city," he said.

In a letter to the congregation, Johnson responded to an unsigned correspondence he said bore Mills' address. "Anyone associated with this document should be embarrassed," he wrote.

"Ordinarily I would not engage in a public response, but the time has come," he wrote in a Jan. 26 letter. "Attempts to resolve these conflicts privately have been unsuccessful. ... I can no longer sit by and allow the cathedral we all love and its future to be held hostage by individuals, some of whom do not even worship here on a regular basis, but who present an agenda that does not help the cathedral."

St. Peter's attempt to redevelop its property is several years old. It initially encountered objections from preservationists but won support in 2001 from the mayor. Baker told City Council members he thought it was more important to save a congregation than a deserted building. That year the council agreed to let the cathedral demolish the old sanctuary, provided it could demonstrate it had money for new construction.

The church was given until December 2004 to raise the money. As the deadline approached, the City Council granted a request for a one-year extension to the demolition permit if St. Peter's preserved the Baptist church facade. The church won another extension late last year.

[Last modified February 8, 2006, 01:15:22]

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