Neighbors to hear of desire to raze church
By WAVENEY ANN MOORE
© St. Petersburg Times, published February 7, 2001
ST. PETERSBURG -- Officials of the Cathedral Church of St. Peter, who want to demolish a 77-year-old landmark across from Williams Park and replace it with a parking lot, will plead their case to neighbors Thursday.
Leaders of the North Downtown Neighborhood Association have made no secret of their feelings about the proposed demolition of the former First Baptist Church of St. Petersburg, which the cathedral has owned since 1990. This week, however, will be the first time that the two parties will meet face to face.
"Actually, last year, when some of this was first talked about, the board of directors did pass a resolution opposing the demolition and saying that it would like to see the building be renovated. But that was several months ago," said Tim Clemmons, president of the North Downtown Neighborhood Association.
"We did get a call from St. Peter's, and they will come to our board meeting ... and give a presentation. We do appreciate that they are coming to tell us why they are doing what they want to do," Clemmons said.
The application to tear down the former Baptist church at 120 Fourth St. N was filed on Jan. 29 and will be considered by the Historic Preservation Commission on Feb. 20. Rick Smith, a planner with the Urban Design and Historic Preservation Division, said the city staff will make a recommendation about the proposed demolition by Feb. 13.
As one member of St. Peter's sees it, the commission must consider either saving the former Baptist sanctuary, designated historically significant and abandoned by its members more than 10 years ago, or ensuring the survival of the Gothic revival Episcopal cathedral, built in 1899, and its vibrant ministry that embraces downtown and beyond.
Preservationists believe it's possible to do both.
Clemmons said he was sympathetic to the cathedral's need for parking, but he could not accept that it should come at the expense of the old Baptist sanctuary.
"I just think there must be a better solution," he said.
In a letter accompanying the demolition application, the Rev. Randall Hehr, dean of the cathedral, wrote of its more than 1,000 active parishioners, "hundreds" of whom visit the cathedral and its facilities each week.
Hehr submitted an almost two-page list of activities that draw traffic to the downtown church, including daily morning, evening and communion services, music lessons, counseling appointments and an AIDS ministry.
"What most people don't realize is that we're not a typical parish church," said Ron Sinclair, who is a member of the cathedral's chapter or board.
"Here we stand, a church that's been in downtown St. Petersburg for 112 years, and we have no parking of our own and we're serving the downtown community. ... Many times, if we have a meeting or a service during the day, we have people, especially the elderly, who circle the block a couple of times and go home. When asked why they didn't show up, they say they couldn't find parking," Sinclair said.
During evenings and weekends, Hehr wrote, church members are able to use nearby city lots.
But, he added, "Many of our programs operate during the day, when few spaces are available on city streets."
In an attempt to illustrate its dilemma, St. Peter's also submitted letters from downtown neighbors, the Princess Martha Hotel, First United Methodist Church and Christ United Methodist Church, each of whom turned down the cathedral's request to rent or lease some of their parking.
If its application is approved, St. Peter's hopes to create 43 parking spaces on the site of the old Baptist church. The parking lot would be landscaped. A brick wall and hedge would form a facade on Fourth Street.
In June 1990, St. Peter's paid $1-million for the property, which included an education building and the neoclassical revival church, built in 1924. While the education building is used for a variety of programs, including a day care center, bookstore and social services, the cavernous sanctuary stands empty. At one time a local group expressed interest in converting it to a performing arts hall but decided that renovations would have been prohibitive. Another talked of converting it to condominiums. More recently, architects hired by St. Peter's have declared that the building is in "very poor condition."
That's of little consequence to James W. Martin, a lawyer, former City Council member and preservationist, who does not want to see the imposing structure flattened for a parking lot.
"I read their application and I understand their concern," he said, referring to St. Peter's need for parking. "But there are certainly many ways to preserve it," said Martin, who has created a Web site for fellow preservationists (http://www.historicstpete.com) and is co-chairman of the Historic Preservation Committee of the Northshore Neighborhood Association.
"I think it's a shame that there's not another way to provide parking without tearing down such a historic building. I don't know of another building that looks like that building in the city," Martin said.
Clemmons, the North Downtown president, said the former Baptist church appears to be structurally sound.
"Yes, it needs new air conditioning and yes, it has some asbestos. We've had any number of expensive building renovations in St. Petersburg, and we've had any number of buildings pulled down for parking lots, and which are the ones we're most proud of?" Clemmons asked.
"I don't think that ultimately every building gets preserved forever, but if in every generation you save 10 or 20 percent of the best buildings, in a few generations you have a really wonderful city."
Furthermore, said Clemmons, an architect who can see the closed church from his office window, St. Peter's has made little effort to save the building.
"They never put a 'for sale' sign out front. Ultimately, I would be very flexible as to what it can be used for. I think it would convert to residential very nicely. ... Another thing that concerns me is that it fronts on to Williams Park, our town square. I don't think you want to surround your town square with surface parking lots," Clemmons said.
When it meets in two weeks, the Historic Preservation Commission will determine whether there are alternatives to demolishing the historic church.
"The issue becomes," said Smith, the planner, "is there alternative parking available?"
If the commission approves the cathedral's application, opponents will have 10 days to appeal to the City Council. It also could be appealed further to the Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Court, Smith said.
Should the ruling go against St. Peter's, church officials will be given the opportunity to provide evidence that denial of their request will result in economic hardship.
Sinclair, who will join Hehr before the North Downtown Neighborhood Association on Thursday, said he is sensitive to the concerns of preservationists.
Yet, he said, "I think that there should be less concern about the elimination of a church that has been closed for 10 years and more concern about a church that has been here 112 years and is still serving the community."
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