What’s Next for the Vacant St. Joseph Academy Building?

The spacious building at 310 Frank Lloyd Wright Way that served Southside Baptist Church for decades and St. Joseph Academy more recently is up for sale for $5.15 million. What’s next for the city landmark?

City zoning rules, the design of the building and neighborhood opposition could make it hard for the former academy to be anything but a school. But another church on the site isn’t out of the question.

Julie Townsend, the executive director of the Lakeland Downtown Development Authority, is past president and current spokeswoman of the Lake Morton Neighborhood Association. She lives on Johnson Avenue close to the academy and said she believes she has a grip on the pulse of the neighborhood.

Townsend said her neighbors would welcome a school or church and said the property would be perfect for a top-notch Polk County public school. But not an office building or Florida Southern College parking lot, which the college needs more of.

“It’s a beautiful building,” Townsend said. “But it doesn’t meet the needs of the neighborhood.”

Joey Blakley is handling the sale of the property for Orlando-based Foundry Commercial, with national offices mostly concentrated in the Southeast U.S.. The company typically focuses on properties of churches, schools and not-for-profit organizations. He responded to LkldNow via email.

“Given the current layout and extensive renovations to the property in 2017 to modernize the buildings for school use, we can certainly envision another school coming into the space; however, we’re meeting with interested buyers from varying backgrounds to better determine if the property is a fit for their needs,” he wrote.

The property was occupied by Southside Baptist Church as early as 1922, and the current classical church building with Greek temple facade was constructed in 1967, according to an article in The Ledger. An education building was added in 1981 and updated in 2017 for St. Joseph Academy.

The Catholic Diocese of Orlando paid $3.5 million for the property in 2008 and converted it to St Joseph Academy, which closed earlier this year.

The real estate listing calls the site an “excellent religious/educational real estate opportunity” that includes nine parcels totaling 4.67 acres, with an 18,888-square-foot sanctuary and a 38,430-square-foot education building.

The zoning for the property is single family residential. But there is a conditional use attached to the property for the use of a church or a school. Todd Vargo, a city planner, said the days of walk-to neighborhood churches have pretty much become a thing of the past.

Matt Lyons, chief planner for the city, said the conditional-use permit for a potential church might not transfer automatically because it’s been a long time since the building served as a church.

Both men said any other use for the property will have to undergo a rigorous city review. Much of that would be open to the public. 

Ron Tomlin, a retired Lakeland Electric supervisor who lives nearby, said a school, and not apartments, would be fine on the property.

“It’s a beautiful old building,” Tomlin said. “I just don’t want to see it torn down.”