Out-of-town developers have been trying to tear St. Michael’s Episcopal down for 20 years. Local residents keep stopping them.

St. Michael’s Episcopal and breezeway. Photo by Elizabeth Townsend.

In early 2018, 75-year-old Eunice Johnson was driving home past the pine trees and Publix on NW 43rd Street. Stopped at a light, she spotted a batch of bright orange signs stuck into the grass on the side of the road. “NOTICE,” the signs shouted. “LAND USE ACTION.”

Curious, Johnson called the developers mentioned on the signs and decided to attend an April 5 neighborhood meeting at Holy Faith Catholic Church. When she walked into the church, the petite woman with white, shoulder-length hair was surprised to find over 100 people, mostly from Suburban Heights, a large upper- to middle-class neighborhood in Northwest Gainesville, strongly against what she learned was a proposed commercial development.

Wilson Development Group, an Atlanta-based real estate firm, wanted to erect commercial stores, restaurants, a credit union and a drive-thru Starbucks on the corner that was occupied by an office, a preschool and a 60-year-old church, St. Michael’s Episcopal.

Residents worried the development would turn their quiet neighborhood into a side street for traffic. Others, like Johnson, were concerned that the city’s pendulum of development was poised to knock down a one-of-a-kind church and 60 years of history with it.

“This is my first time to be involved in anything like this in Gainesville,” Johnson said. “There’s so much to this building. We don’t need to destroy it, we don’t need to bulldoze it, we don’t need to pave it over.”

This past summer, residents fought the third attempt in 20 years to tear St. Michael’s down. “We are at a crossroads as a city,” said David Forest, Executive Director of Gainesville Modern, a local architectural advocacy nonprofit. “We need to ask ourselves whether we want outside corporations and real estate developers shaping our city or whether we want to consciously control how our city looks and feels.”

In 1958, the Episcopal Diocese of Florida paid $10 for a tract of land in what was then rural northwest Gainesville, intending to establish a new mission of Holy Trinity Episcopal. But that same year, 60 members divested from the church in defiance of Holy Trinity’s policy of racial segregation and established a new church, St. Michael’s.

The congregation met in what is now the preschool until the church-proper was built in 1975. Without a spire or pitched roof, St. Michael’s looks more like a fort or a ship than a church. It’s the only building in Gainesville designed by Nils Schweizer, who was a seminal Florida architect and student of Frank Lloyd Wright. Inside, the exposed wooden beams and orange Blenko stained glass above the altar evoke Wright’s organic approach.

And with tile floors and a laminated ceiling, St. Michael’s was engineered for sound.

“Schweizer wanted it to be a place of worship, but it was also a place for appreciation of great hymns,” said Mikesch Muecke, a professor of architecture at Iowa State University whose wife, Miriam, was the music director at St. Michael’s. “He wanted to make a space that people would come back to because of the ways things sounded in it.”

In St. Michael’s heyday, preschool was in session at 9 a.m., and the bronze bell rung diligently at 12. On the other side of the fence, families laid flowers at Rutledge, a historic black cemetery founded after the Civil War by members of First Morning Star Baptist Church.

In a fall 2017 survey by the Historic Preservation Program at UF, St. Michael’s was one of 11 mid-century modern buildings worthy of nomination to the National Register of Historic Places.

“There’s a holy feeling there,” said Clare Stokes, who played bass guitar and sang soprano “Just the space: I liked the slate floor, I liked the rose window, I liked the big stone altar.”

Shielded from cars by a thin row of pine trees, St. Michael’s is now flanked on the intersection of NW 43rd Street and 23rd Avenue by a Kangaroo, a CVS and the Thornebrook shopping center. Those wishing to visit the church will find locked doors and overgrown parking spots, as divisions in styles of worship and unreliable leadership caused its decline. The church voted to close in December 2016 as attendance dwindled between 20 to 30 members.

“I’ve been trying other churches and I’ve just been feeling kind of lost,” said Stokes, who had worshipped at St. Michael’s for nearly 20 years until it closed.

Malcolm Gets, a UF professor of acting, was confirmed in St. Michael’s in the 70s. He sang in the junior choir and played the organ, and remembers how, at only eight years old, he wasn’t tall enough to reach the pedals.

“There was a very open-minded feeling there,” Gets said. “It was not high mass; it was much more down to earth. It’s part of the reason we were drawn to it.”

Church office. Photo by Elizabeth Townsend.

At the turn of the millenium, St. Michael’s attendance started to slip. The diocese, yet again, started to look elsewhere for a mission, hoping to finance a move by selling the church. The first time it attempted to sell was to Eckerds pharmacy in 2000. Though supported by churchgoers, the city planning board denied the “Eckerds plan.” It faced harsh resistance from residents.

“This town is starting to look like Orlando, pavement + offices!!” scrawled one resident in a handwritten letter to the city planning board in August 2000.

Walgreens considered the site in late 2010 but lost interest. The Ferber Company of Ponte Vedra Beach had the property under contract in 2012 with the intention of developing a strip mall, but no interested buyers bit. Though the preschool was still active, Wilson Development was the first to proposed development without a congregation at St. Michael’s.

As more and more Americans skip Sunday service, St. Michael’s story is not unique. First Baptist Church relocated to Jonesville after 135 years on University Ave; the building is now the leasing office for the Continuum. The old Westside Baptist church location on 13th Street is now a LifeSouth Community Blood Center.

“There was a very open-minded feeling there. It was not high mass; it was much more down to earth. It’s part of the reason we were drawn to it.”

Yet Canon Allison DeFoor said the Episcopal Diocese of Florida, which presides over North Florida, is the second-fastest-growing diocese in the nation. After it sells St. Michael’s, the diocese wants to open a church between Newberry and Alachua, which DeFoor said is a “growth hotspot” for the region.

Other churches have taken notice since St. Michael’s shut its doors. Its location has attracted at least three offers to buy it, including a million-dollar offer from Servants of Christ. But the diocese hopes to make quadruple, possibly even quintuple that amount. (In 2018, the land, a little over three acres, was appraised by the city for $1,852,500.)

“They offered 20 cents on the dollar, which would not enable us to build a new church in the growth corridor,” DaFoor said. “They were asking us to give several million dollars to another church. Those are not realistic offers. Not in time or amount. To be frank, it’s just silly.”

The diocese argues the building is not even suitable for a church. Bishop Samuel Howard noted the church’s “antiquated construction” in a letter he wrote to the Gainesville planning board concerning the Wilson plan, maintaining that he thought Schweizer’s buildings “weren’t designed very well for Florida.”

The diocese did, however, offer to move the building. “We’d be delighted to assist them in having it moved for free.” DaFoor said. “If the community wishes to have it, if it is of use to the community, come get it.”

In mid-November 2017, less than a year after St. Michael’s voted to close, a letter arrived at Meredith Goodrich’s door, informing her and roughly 20 others in the neighborhood about a community workshop, the first in a series of meetings about the new strip mall Wilson Development proposed to build in their backyards.

Goodrich and others soon learned that if Wilson wanted to build its strip mall, it needed to rezone the property. St. Michael’s is currently zoned for offices and conservation land. Wilson Development wanted the city planning board, which is comprised of seven volunteer members, to approve an application for mixed-use low intensity to allow for drive-thrus.

Residents had several concerns with the proposal, the biggest of which was traffic. In an attempt to avoid rush hour congestion, drivers cut through the Suburban Heights neighborhood. The main side roads they use have only one speed bump and, as one resident described to the planning board, a “goofy little miniature roundabout that doesn’t do anything except grow palm trees.” Residents also didn’t want to lose any of the conservation land the buffers the neighborhood from the noise and light of the property.

CHW, the local agent for Wilson Development, said it was proposing to remove the conservation land for safety reasons. It promised to advocate for signs, flashing crosswalks and speed bumps to quell traffic. The remaining conservation land would become an eco-park. CHW suggested the church pews could be repurposed as park benches.

“We’d be delighted to assist them in having it moved for free.” DaFoor said. “If the community wishes to have it, if it is of use to the community, come get it.”

But before the plan had been approved, Front Street, a Gainesville property management group, released a brochure in early 2018 advertising the space to potential tenants that has since been removed from its website. The mockup had 165 parking spaces and three drive-thrus. There was no disclaimer that the property was contingent on approval from the planning board.

To residents, this felt like betrayal. “They promised us the stars and the moon, just, I think, to put everybody at ease,” said Tracy Staples, a resident.

Staples moved to Suburban Heights three years ago to escape the congestion of her former residence near midtown. Her backyard is only 400 feet from the church property, close enough that she could hear her neighbor’s kids playing at the day school.

Upset by the Front Street brochure, Staples made the Facebook group “Residents Against Rezoning St. Michael’s” in late March. Between the neighborhood Facebook group, notifications on the Nextdoor app and homeowners meetings, word reached the rest of the community. Soon residents were knocking on doors, collecting signatures at Bagel Bakery, and holding signs at the intersection.

“I was just upset and called to action,” Goodrich said. “If I sold my house for a Gate station, I could get more money. But I’m not zoned to have a Gate station in the middle of a single-family neighborhood.”

Goodrich and Staples asked their neighbors to write letters to the planning board, knowing the upcoming April meeting would be the best chance of stopping the new development. Of the roughly 100 letters and emails sent this past year to the planning board in opposition to the developers’ application, the majority were from Suburban Heights residents. Many had never been to or even heard of St. Michael’s.

“I urge you to pay attention to me and the many others who oppose this land-use change,” wrote Patricia Rowe, who has lived in the neighborhood since 1969. “We love our city. You need to do everything possible to protect it.”

On April 25, residents arrived at City Hall at 6:30 p.m. in droves, packing the usually empty auditorium and spilling out into the waiting area. Goodrich, Staples and Johnson wore stickers on their sweaters asking the other residents in attendance to “Vote No.”

The meeting kicked off with an hour-long presentation from Gerry Dedenbach, the vice president of CHW who has thinning gray hair and wears wire-rim glasses. Standing before the residents, Dedenbach extolled the virtues of the mixed-used development designation. He argued it was a “more modern” land use for Gainesville and “consistent with the comprehensive plan” in that it mirrored the other three corners of the intersection, which all contained mixed-use or higher intensity.

But the planning board members were confused as to why Wilson needed a mixed-use designation to build what it proposed: Restaurants, coffee shops and retail spaces, which are all accepted under the property’s current zoning.

“There are auto-oriented uses that are not allowed in the office [designation],” Dedenbach said. “There are the times where someone has a sick child, or they don’t want to leave the car but maybe want to pick up their medication, or they want to drive-thru and get that cup of coffee while they are answering a text message.”

St. Michael’s Episcopal, south entrance. Photo by Elizabeth Townsend.

“You just said [drive-thrus] exist on every other corner,” planning board member Terry Clark replied. “What new services are you providing? What would [the neighborhood] be gaining?”

“What they would be gaining is services on their side of the road,” Dedenbach said.

Chuckles and snickers were heard from the usually polite room. Dedenbach looked visibly perturbed. “We know that the church is not going to be there forever,” he said.
Then came time for public comment, which lasted until midnight. Residents brought pictures they had taken of car crashes from the past month. One resident spoke about how she found her cat dead, run over on her front lawn. Another described the time she was hit on her bike at the intersection and had a grand mal seizure.

Staples walked up to the podium and put a picture of her backyard on the screen. “This corner of the intersection is all that is left to balance the congested and densely developed corners,” she said, never removing the small microphone from her face. “We are not a New York City, and nobody moved here in hopes that it would be that way.”
She quoted Joni Mitchell’s “Big Yellow Taxi” and walked back to her seat.

“On one hand you have experts, analysis and data, and on the other hand you have concerns and fears and maybe distrust,” Steven Diebenow, a lobbyist for the applicant, said as a last rebuttal. “But nothing that rises to the level that permits you, in my opinion, to vote to oppose.”

The planning board unanimously voted against the land-use petition. But what should have been a victory for residents was a stalemate: Before the board could vote no on the zoning petition, the developers requested a postponement at the last minute. The next month, Wilson put the petition on an “indefinite hold” for “data and analysis collection” to avoid having to wait a year to re-apply.

And despite all this, the diocese could demolish the church today. Some in Gainesville are trying to make St. Michael’s a local landmark, which would prevent demolition. Gainesville Modern, a nonprofit dedicated to preserving Gainesville’s architecture, will include the church in its self-guided landmark tour in March.

But the designation is highly unlikely. Since the diocese will not nominate the building, the city commission or the historic preservation board would have to intervene. To Gainesville Modern President Marty Hylton’s knowledge, that hasn’t happened in Gainesville for at least 20 years. “I’ve been doing this long enough; no one’s ever regretted not demolishing a building, trust me,” Hylton said.

The developers told the planning board in June that they are hoping to revisit the application before the year’s end. “Some of the people that were involved in this, this is their third time around,” Johnson said. We’d just like to get this thing settled once and for all.”

Frances Shaw grew up singing in St. Michael’s junior choir in the late 1960s, sometimes as Gabriel in the Christmas play. She has fond memories of playing in the church yard and wandering the outdoor hallways, sometimes finding an unlocked door with an old pump organ to play. 

Shaw lives in New England now, but joined an “Old Gainesville” Facebook group in March, hoping for a trip down memory lane. While perusing the page, Shaw saw the plan to tear down St. Michael’s. It felt like a punch in the gut. “The conversations all seemed to start out with, “Do you remember…?”, [sic] which was a sad declaration that something wonderful was long gone,” Shaw wrote in an email. 

“Now, more than ever, children need somewhere to go that isn’t trying to sell them something,” Shaw wrote. “That simply provides a safe and welcoming place … to ponder the miracle of existence, feel cherished. … I feel so incredibly lucky to have that experience at St. Michael’s.” 

“When I contemplate a possible move back to Gainesville, inevitably, I think of those pine trees,” Shaw wrote. “I’d be devastated to see them cut down for a parking lot.” •