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Plans falter to redevelop Without Walls church site

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Published:   |   Updated: October 28, 2013 at 01:57 PM

Earlier this year, Randy White spoke optimistically about the future of his financially troubled church, Without Walls International.

A $14 million deal was on the table to sell the sanctuary, administration building and surrounding property off West Columbus Drive in Tampa, with plans by a developer to build upscale apartments, restaurants and shops on the site.

“This is a win-win situation for everyone involved,” the pastor told The Tampa Tribune in January. “It's a project that will be good for the area. And it will leave us debt-free and with money in the bank.”

Those plans apparently have stalled in court, though, with no resolution in the near future.

And it doesn't look any better for the church's Lakeland branch, which includes two buildings on 80 acres. That location has been shuttered for two years and is accruing $100 a day in code violations.

Last weekend, White sent a mass email that detailed his frustration with holdups he blames on the California-based Evangelical Christian Credit Union, which is foreclosing on both properties.

Without Walls has counter-­sued, charging that the lender has acted “inappropriately” toward White and the church.

White encouraged all of the email recipients to attend Sunday services or watch live online because he would be “confronting lies and addressing hard issues, including the sell (sic) of our property, a deal that fell through at the hand of the so called Christian bank, ECCU.

“Without Walls is sick and tired of being mistreated,” he wrote. “We are the victim and it is time for the truth to be told and exposed.”

White never did explain his accusations, after quickly being advised by counsel to “refrain from commenting on the specifics of pending litigation from the pulpit.”

 

A year ago, White told The Tampa Tribune that Without Walls, an independent evangelical church he founded in 1991 with then-wife Paula White, had about $22 million in mortgage debt between the two properties.

The once-vibrant charismatic church, which claimed about 20,000 followers and brought in a reported $55 million a year, began a plunge in 2007 with the Whites' divorce, a U.S. Senate inquiry into the church's finances, White's daughter's death and the pastor's subsequent addiction to prescription drugs.

White stepped down for three years, a time of “personal restoration” that included a two-month stint in a Malibu rehabilitation center.

He returned in July 2012 to a congregation that had dwindled to a few hundred and $350,000 in outstanding bills.

“I let my family down. I think I let this community down. And that's part of the reason I'm back,” he said in an interview after his return. “I'm a different person.”

But he had plenty of challenges ahead.

ECCU spokesman Jac La Tour said the credit union originally filed for foreclosure in 2008, but an agreement was later reached on a loan modification. In October 2012, ECCU initiated foreclosure proceedings again in both Hillsborough and Polk counties. No sale date has been set for either property.

Though he wouldn't comment specifically on Without Walls, La Tour did note that the credit union had no foreclosures in nearly 40 years of business. That began to change as the economy toppled beginning in 2007. ECCU had two that year, seven in 2008, with a record high in 2011 with 21.

This year, to date, the credit union — which represents about 1,800 ministry members and about 7,000 consumers — has nine foreclosures, with 32 in process. Some of those have two properties, such as Without Walls.

Meanwhile, White put his attention on selling the Tampa property, paying its debt and finding a new home — and possibly new name — for his congregation.

The Richman Group of Florida and Without Walls each say the other failed to show on at least one of three closing dates between May and September. The brokerage firm that almost brought the deal to fruition has filed liens on the church property to protect its claim to $630,000 in commissions for two parcels on Grady Avenue and Columbus Drive.

According to a commercial real estate listing site, the sale price for the property is $13.7  million. County records list the combined market value of 2511 N. Grady Ave. and 3860 W. Columbus Drive at about $8.7 million.

“There have been times when the parties were in agreement, and there have been times when there has not been a meeting of the minds,” said the church's attorney, John Anthony. “The motives and reasons of the parties for not closing or wanting to close on various terms during the past year will likely be the subject of some litigation in the near future.”

He acknowledged that there is “substantial disagreement” between The Richman Group of Florida and the church as to why the first agreement failed, why subsequent efforts failed and what motivations caused “the global disappointment.”

That is also the case with the ECCU, Anthony said. The exact figure the church owes is a matter of “significant contentious dispute in both courts.”

 

While there is no imminent deal for the Lakeland site, it's unclear what the next steps could be for the proposed project on the Tampa property.

“We would love for it to go forward,” said Todd Fabbri, executive vice president of The Richman Group of Florida. “We had a deal, a purchase and sale agreement for both parcels. He (Randy White) has not honored those.”

Kenny Anderson, senior advisor for Sperry Van Ness Commercial Real Estate, which was brokering the deal, said it has been more than 20 days since he heard from anyone at The Richman Group.

“I'm pretty certain, based on the effort and money spent by The Richman Group, that they are still interested in the property,” Anderson said. “I still hope and pray that we can get this done.”

The Tampa City Council approved the development in May. Based on The Richman Group's zoning application of December 2012, construction was planned in two phases for a total of 557 apartments. The first completion date was in winter of this year, the second in the winter of 2014.

Access would be off Grady Avenue, which dead ends on the southern portion of the site. Residents had some concerns that Grady would be extended into the Carver City/Lincoln Gardens neighborhood, a largely black neighborhood built for returning World War II veterans and now surrounded by new apartment complexes and commercial development. Horner assured council members and neighbors that was not part of the development plan.

An upscale restaurant at the site was a possibility, and even a shop or two.

The Richman Group has developed several East Tampa apartment complexes in recent years, including Meridian Pointe, Brandywine and Grande Oaks, which lease apartments based on a renter's income and a sliding fee scale.

This proposal, however, was for upscale apartments with full amenities such as parking garage, pool, clubhouse, Wi-Fi and a business center. Apartment sizes would range from 557 square feet to 1,400 square feet, with monthly rates from $1,100 to $2,300.

Recently the city's code enforcement department ticketed Without Walls for failing to get a permit for a partial demolition of the administrative building located behind the sanctuary. It appears no work has been done there in a while, but a permit is required, said Sal Ruggiero, the city's neighborhood enhancement manager.

The church also was told to cut back overgrowth on the property.

 

The West Shore area is in the midst of a building renaissance as offices, shops and apartments populate West Shore Boulevard, Boy Scout Road, Dale Mabry Highway and Columbus Drive. WestShore Plaza and International Plaza bookend the boulevard. The Container Store recently opened at West Shore and Boy Scout. Law firms Carlton Fields and Shutts & Bowen moved from downtown to towers near the same intersection.

Area restaurants on Boy Scout include Capital Grille and Cheesecake Factory (in International Plaza) plus newer dining options at Kona Grill and Boizao. Developers are building a shopping center adjacent to the Container Store. Potential tenants could be Olive Garden and Longhorn Steakhouse.

An estimated 100,000 people work daily in the West Shore business district, which is the largest office market in Florida. Hancock Bank, Outback Steakhouse and Pricewaterhouse­Coopers are among those leasing offices at corporate towers.

The district is a gateway into Tampa for passengers arriving at nearby Tampa International Airport. And Interstate 275 is an easy link between Pinellas and Hillsborough counties.

“It's nice to see the residential units going in,” said Ron Rotella, executive director of the Westshore Alliance, though he sees a shortage of workforce-rate apartments being built.

Roommates often share the higher-rent apartments, he said. Others find lower rents outside the area and that contributes to traffic congestion.

“In the scheme of things for the district of West Shore, it's not a major issue” if this sale doesn't go through, Rotella said. “If it becomes available, clear of litigation, it will be developed by someone.”

White told the Tribune in January he's learned one major lesson through this ordeal.

“I never want to take on debt again,” he said.

mbearden@tampatrib.com

(813) 259-7613

ksteele@tampatrib.com

(813) 259-7652

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