A miracle. A blessing. A prayer answered by god. That is what Miami Beach Community Church leaders call a plan to replace the congregation's historic courtyard with a clothing store. The $100 million deal will save the struggling church, they say, and help ensure it's longterm future.
But preservationists and even some parishioners say newly appointed church leaders have misled their flock, lied to the city, and sold their souls for silver. 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 new leadership has taken the church constitution and thrown it in the garbage."
The small, white church is a rare reminder that South Beach was once swamp and sand. It was founded by the famous developer Carl Fisher at the behest of his wife, Jane. According to her autobiography, the couple were strolling along Lincoln Road - back then little more than a path amongst the mangroves - around Christmastime 1919 when Jane decided the nascent community needed a church.
"Where in hell do you want your church?" Carl asked. When Jane deferred to her husband, he plunged a stick into the ground and said: "This is as good a place as any."
A photo from MBCC's HPB application
Miami Beach Community Church
For almost a century, the church's courtyard has been home to Christmas trees, Easter egg hunts, and bake sales. But Deputy says things began to change when H.E. Thompson was appointed pastor in October 2012.
"I did not vote for him because I knew it was going to be trouble," Deputy says.
An architect and realtor, Deputy had been in charge of the church's restoration since 1996. He had raised $1.5 million and upgraded the building's plumbing, electrical, and fire sprinkler systems. But he was also a fierce defender of the church courtyard.
"For a while there it seemed like every month someone came trying to sell the church on building a bar or a nightclub or a clothing store in the courtyard," he says. "Every year we didn't have to sell something to a developer we celebrated."
But the new pastor didn't seem to share his passion. Deputy soon found himself disinvited from board meetings. Finally, on December 16 of last year, he read in New Times that Thompson and MBCC's board of directors were considering leasing the courtyard to a developer for $100 million.
The next day, Deputy received a notice from the church for an "educational meeting" that Saturday. When he showed up, he found Thompson standing next to developer David Edelstein.
The pastor announced Edelstein had donated $500,000 to the church. Then the TriStar Capital executive laid out his plan to pay up to $100 million to transform the courtyard into a clothing store. The next day, the congregation overwhelmingly approved the deal.
"Half a million dollars would color some votes, I would think," Deputy says.
(Edelstein did not return requests for comment. The church declined to comment on the $500,000 donation.)
A rendition of what the store will look like next to the church
But Deputy says the shady donation was only the tip of the iceberg. When church leaders brought the idea before the Historical Preservation Board on May 13, Thompson claimed the church was struggling and needed the deal to survive. If it didn't go through, he warned that the entire church could be sold to developers instead. HPB approved the deal.
"I think they were lied to by representatives of the church," Deputy says. He says the church is already "rolling" in money. Thompson's threat to move the church off South Beach, meanwhile, is bogus: the MBCC constitution says if the church goes under, the building must still be preserved. "The application was fallacious to the max," Deputy says.
He's not the only one who thinks so. Daniel Ciraldo of the Miami Design Preservation League says the deal should never have gotten the green light. Not only did Carl Fisher's original deed forbid commercial development on the site, but so does MBCC's own constitution. Most important, a gleaming glass and steel clothing store will block views of the historic church.
"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."
An online petition against the courtyard development has gathered roughly 350 signatures.
Tomorrow at 9 a.m., MDPL will ask HPB for a rehearing. If Ciraldo is successful, the case will be debated again in two weeks. If not, his group could eventually sue to stop the courtyard's destruction.
Deputy hopes the deal is axed, but church leaders are confident.
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"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."