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Construction starts on embattled senior housing project

Mark Parker



A rendering of Bear Creek Commons, located on the former Grace Connection Church property at 635 64th St. S. in West St. Petersburg. Image provided.

After years of public opposition and financial challenges, several local officials and stakeholders came together Monday to break ground on a senior affordable housing development with monthly rents starting as low as $300.

Located at 635 64th St. S. in West St. Petersburg, Bear Creek Commons will feature 85 one- and two-bedroom units for households earning less than 80% of the area median income (AMI). Of those, 18 are for seniors making 30% or less of the AMI, with 48 capped at 60% or below.

The project – enabled by extensive public-private partnerships – is transforming the former site of the Grace Connection Church. Scott Macdonald, executive vice president of Blue Sky Communities, and several speakers noted that hurdles appeared immediately after the affordable housing developer announced its plans for the property in early 2020.

“The obstacles that we overcame to get here were honestly some of the most trying of my career and of our company’s history,” Macdonald said. “There was a significant NIMBY (not in my backyard) battle that was waged on this property. It was vocal; it was visceral. And I’m not going to lie – at times it sewed seeds of doubt.

“But the City of St. Petersburg put to rest any of those doubts.”

From left: Stephanie Lampe, senior housing development coordinator; former City Councilmember Robert Blackmon; former Councilmember and current Housing and Neighborhood Services Administrator Amy Foster; Councilmember Copley Gerdes; Scott Macdonald, executive vice president of Blue Sky Communities; Mayor Ken Welch; Sen. Nick DiCeglie; and Councilmember Ed Montanari. Photos by Mark Parker.

Bear Creek Commons is for people 55 and over and should open in the Fall of 2024. According to U.S. Census data, 19.3% of the city’s roughly 270,000 residents are 65 and older.

A 2022 study by the Gerontology Institute at the University of Massachusetts Boston found that one in four seniors rely on Social Security benefits that only cover about 68% of living expenses. Subsidized housing helps fill that gap.

However, many residents spoke out against the project three years ago due to fears it would lower property values and is incompatible with the neighborhood’s character. The Community Planning and Preservation Commission voted 6-1 in opposition.

Mayor Ken Welch and multiple speakers credited the city council – particularly Robert Blackmon, the area’s former representative – for unanimously moving the development forward despite the public outcry.

“It will provide opportunities for our seniors to live out their lives here in St. Petersburg,” Welch said. “And I think it’s going to be a great example of what we can do through innovation, partnership and leadership. This is what progress looks like in St. Petersburg.”

Mayor Ken Welch (right) and Scott Macdonald, who is also an Affordable Housing Advisory Committee member.

Pastor Tim Kelley noted that the property served residents for 60 years and will continue providing a community benefit. He recalled listening to over 600 people air their concerns with Blackmon and attorney Don Mastry at an initial neighborhood meeting with a faltering air conditioning system.

He credited local leaders for “keeping our hand to the plow” when it would have been easier to forgo the plans.

“They don’t teach us how to sell properties in seminary,” Kelley added. “Especially with great neighborhood opposition like this one faced.”

Public outcry was just the first hurdle. Construction costs and interest rates soared in the years since 2020, when the project was approved, and Blue Sky looked to several public and private partners to see the project to fruition.

Pinellas County Commissioners approved up to $12.5 million in Multifamily Housing Revenue Bonds for the estimated $25 million development in March. City officials contributed $4.6 million in funding and utilized $2 million of its Penny for Pinellas proceeds to purchase the land.

Macdonald said that ensures the development would stay affordable in perpetuity. He also credited Blue Sky’s investment partner, Raymond James, and the local Housing Finance Authority for navigating a “complex” process.

State Sen. Nick DiCeglie called Bear Creek “a perfect example” of what an “all hands on deck” approach means. He said the mayor, city council and other local leaders understand the need to aggressively implement housing solutions.

“Because at the end of the day, for this particular project, we’re going to have senior citizens who are going to be able to afford rent and a roof over their head,” DiCeglie added. “Which is incredibly important.”

Bear Creek will feature a game room, art hall, gazebo and onsite support staff. Welch stressed the importance of overcoming the stigma associated with affordable housing and called the development another example of clean, safe and well-managed homes “that anyone would want to live in.”

Councilmember Copley Gerdes now represents the area and believes Bear Creek is a “transformative project” for the city’s west side. He added that the groundbreaking highlights what can happen when people work together towards a common goal.

“When the mayor was elected, and he created his pillars, one of the things he talked about all the time was opportunities for all,” Gerdes said. “And this is really what that is. If you are really going to do what you preach, then you’ve got to stick your neck out.”

To receive Bear Creek Commons’ application notices, visit the website here.



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  1. Avatar


    June 6, 2023at5:03 pm

    Yes Chris that’s exactly correct.

    Congratulations to the catalyst. This is the first time I’ve ever seen them mention that 1) not everyone is happy about these projects and 2) maybe just maybe there’s nothing “affordable “ about these projects. It’s all a lie to bully existing residents and take advantage of productive members of the community.

  2. Avatar


    June 6, 2023at10:30 am

    So… your constituents, who elected you, voiced that they were very much against this project, and the person representing them thought they knew better. Did I capture that correctly?

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