A miracle. A blessing. A prayer answered by God. That is what Miami Beach Community Church (MBCC) leaders call a $100 million plan to replace the congregation's historic courtyard with a clothing store. But preservationists and even some parishioners say newly appointed church leaders have misled their flock and lied to the city. Most damning of all: allegations that a developer donated $500,000 to the church the day before the congregation voted on the deal.
"The whole thing just stinks," says Neal Deputy, a former MBCC board member who is among those now pressing the city to nix the deal.
The small white church was founded by the famous developer Carl Fisher at the behest of his wife, Jane. For almost a century, the church's courtyard has been home to Christmas trees, Easter egg hunts, and bake sales.
Critics of Lincoln Road Church Development Deal Say $500,000 Donation Greased the Wheels
But Deputy says things began to change when H.E. Thompson was appointed pastor in October 2012. An architect and realtor, Deputy had been in charge of the church's restoration since 1996 and had raised $1.5 million for upgrades. But he was also a fierce defender of the church courtyard, which developers were continually trying to buy.
The new pastor didn't share his passion. Deputy soon found himself disinvited from board meetings. Finally, last December 16, he read in New Times that the church might lease the courtyard to a developer for $100 million.
The next day, Deputy showed up at a church meeting and found Thompson standing next to developer David Edelstein. Edelstein had donated $500,000 to the church, the pastor announced. Then the exec laid out plans to transform the courtyard into a clothing store. The next day, the congregation overwhelmingly approved the deal.
Deputy says the half-million-dollar donation was only the tip of the iceberg. When church leaders brought the idea before the Historical Preservation Board (HPB) May 13, Thompson claimed the church was struggling financially and might sell the whole building otherwise. The board approved the deal.
"I think they were lied to," Deputy says. Thompson's threat to move the church, meanwhile, is bogus: The MBCC constitution says if the church goes under, the building must still be preserved.
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He's not the only one who thinks so. Daniel Ciraldo of the Miami Design Preservation League (MDPL) says the deal should never have gotten the green light. Not only did Carl Fisher's original deed forbid commercial development, but MBCC's own constitution also states so. "Miami Beach is really a place that is honored for its historic preservation," Ciraldo says. "So it's important to our brand and our city that we uphold the preservation laws that got us here."
MDPL is now asking HPB for a rehearing. Deputy hopes the deal is axed, but church leaders are confident.
"We... fully expect the Historic Preservation Board to uphold their unanimous vote to approve this responsibly designed project," Reverend Thompson said in a statement, "which will ensure the survival of our church and the preservation of our campus."