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Swap might save historic First Baptist

A neighborhood association and Cathedral Church of St. Peter like the idea of swapping the 1924 former church for space in a city parking lot. Will the city?

By WAVENEY ANN MOORE

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 11, 2001


ST. PETERSBURG -- Though sympathetic to their need for parking, leaders of a downtown neighborhood group say they cannot support a request by the Cathedral Church of St. Peter to demolish a historic landmark at 120 Fourth St. N.

So St. Peter's is considering a unique solution: a swap.

The cathedral, at 140 Fourth St. N, is willing to trade the former First Baptist Church, built in 1924, for space in a nearby City Hall parking lot.

It was one of the suggestions raised during a meeting late last week between cathedral representatives and board members of the North Downtown Neighborhood Association.

The Rev. Randall Hehr, dean of St. Peter's, and Ron Sinclair, a member of the cathedral's chapter or board, appeared before the organization to present their case for tearing down the former First Baptist Church, which St. Peter purchased 10 years ago, to make way for a parking lot.

Tim Clemmons, president of the neighborhood association, said during last week's meeting that his organization upheld a motion passed last fall to support preservation of the neoclassical revival structure.

"Then a second motion was made," Clemmons said. "In light of the North Downtown Neighborhood Association's support for preserving the First Baptist Church, we urge the city of St. Petersburg to actively pursue a solution for the St. Peter's Episcopal church's parking needs utilizing the city hall parking lot."

Added Clemmons, "St. Peter's is important enough to deserve the city's help in this."

He said the neighborhood association is suggesting that a multistory parking lot be built on one of the City Hall lots across from St. Peter's. The cathedral could then purchase or lease some of the spaces in the garage, Clemmons said.

Not only would the garage solve the parking problems of St. Peter's and those of other downtown organizations and businesses, the neighborhood association said it also could lead to the elimination of surface lots near Mirror Lake. Those properties then would be free for redevelopment or park land, Clemmons said.

"That's going to be our message over the next couple of months," he said. "We want the city to take this seriously and commit to a solution. If that happens, then I think St. Peter's would be willing to sell the church and use that money toward a parking garage."

Sinclair said St. Peter's appreciates the neighborhood association's concern, but that the cathedral's decision to tear down the former Baptist church had not come easily.

"Only after studying all the alternatives over several years' time did we apply for a demolition permit," he said.

"The survival and growth of St. Peter's and its many community programs is tied to adding daytime parking.

"If the city wished to join with us in solving this problem and retain the Baptist property, we would gladly trade the Baptist sanctuary building for the eastern-most of the city's three parking lots across from us on Second Avenue."

The Historic Preservation Commission will consider St. Peter's demolition request on Feb. 20.

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