This blog has written about numerous instances in Philadelphia where an historic church has been slated for demolition or renovation only to encounter opposition from former parishoners or other preservationists. Another historic church may have been headed for a similar fate when a developer purchased the building and announced a redevelopment plan that preserved the “interior fabric” of the church. The plan has just received approval from the Zoning Board of Adjustment.
The church, First African Baptist Church, located at 1600 Christian Street, was founded in 1809, and the current structure was built in 1906. The church is one of the city’s oldest African-American churches. Last year, the building was sold; this action divided the congregation. The interior of the church fell into serious disrepair, and the building was slated for demolition. The structure was then purchased by MLK Real Estate.
The new owner announced a plan to convert the church into a 100-child capacity daycare center and two condominiums. The developer’s spokesperson said of the plan, “”We take the conversion of this property as a sacred type of project. We could have put 19 apartments in there and totally destroyed the interior of the church, and we decided that this is not what we want to do.” Two high-end condominium units will occupy the church’s sanctuary, making use of the extensive stained glass in the space. The day care center will occupy the basement of the building. During this past week, the Zoning Board of Adjustment approved a zoning permit that allows “adaptive reuse” of the church structure. The developers are continuing to work with neighborhood organizations to garner support for their plan.
The reuse of the First African Baptist Church appears to be an encouraging development for all parties. Those who are urging the preservation of a historic structure will see the building renovated and strengthened. Those who see the need for additional day care and quality housing in the neighborhood will also be satisfied. In both cases, the expertise of lawyers skilled in working with the city’s zoning code was necessary to create a satisfactory result.
Source: The Philadelphia Tribune, “Board OKs permit for First African Baptist to become daycare, condos,” Ayana Jones, Oct. 7, 2016