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Debate over land use at forefront of historic church's future

A historic church in the Bella Vista neighborhood of Philadelphia faces an uncertain fate due to a dispute about whether a developer should be allowed to destroy it in order to make space for some new townhomes that would likely attract new residents, and wealth, to the neighborhood.

The sale of the property began simply enough, with the congregation of the church, which was once a mission church targeting Italian immigrants, putting the building up for sale. The congregation wants to move and expand, and it says the building is not in good repair.

Since the church sits in a prime location for residential development, it was not surprising that a noted developer quickly took advantage of the sale and bought the property for somewhere around $1.5 million. He planned to tear it down and build five townhouses, which would further Bella Vista's trend toward gentrification.

However, a local activist has held up the development plans by seeking to get the church designated as a historic site. The activist and other supporters say that the church adds character and a sense of community to the neighborhood, and tearing it down means a permanent loss of those attributes. If the activist succeeds, the developer and the church, won't be allowed to go through with their intended plan.

This dispute is just the latest in a series of debates in Philadelphia that involve striking the proper balance between living in a city with a lot of wonderful history worth preserving and the need to keep Philadelphia growing economically. For local real estate developers, it serves as a reminder that a property's status as a historic site is an important consideration to think about alongside zoning and rezoning considerations.

Source: The Philadelphia Inquirer, "Bella Vista church emerges as latest example of preservation vs. development tensions in Philly," Caitlin McCabe, Oct. 25, 2017.

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