Bella Vista church saved from demolition; Feibush redevelopment off

The Philadelphia Historic Commission voted to designate the Christian Street Baptist Church as historic last week. The designation saves the church from the threat of demolition.

After an extensive and emotional debate over the fate of the Christian Street Baptist Church in Bella Vista, the Philadelphia Historical Commission made a tough decision Friday: It added the building to the city’s Historic Register, capping a months-long debate over whether to demolish or preserve the more than century-old church.

By Monday morning, developer Ori Feibush had made his decision, too: He would pull out of his nearly $1.5 million-dollar agreement of sale for the church, scrapping plans to tear the property down and build five town homes in its place.

Feibush’s decision, which came on the heels of a 5-4 vote by the commission, means the chapel and the associated buildings at 1024 Christian St. — a 7,200-square-foot lot — are once again looking for a buyer.

But this time, it will have to be one looking toward renovation — and not demolition.

When the Christian Street Baptist Church was listed for sale earlier this year, both Feibush and preservation activists quickly took notice: Feibush assembled an offer for the 1890s church, while well-known preservation activist Oscar Beisert drafted a historic nomination.

In documents filed with the Historical Commission, Beisert argued that the building’s history as one of Philadelphia’s oldest Italian missions warranted saving. In fast-changing Bella Vista — historically home to African Americans and then Italian Americans before becoming one of Philadelphia’s most rapidly gentrifying neighborhoods — Beisert contended that the building was a vital part of neighborhood history.

Amid the battle between preservation and development, the fate of the church’s congregation hung in the balance. This year, Christian Street Baptist Church Pastor Clayton Hicks decided to list the property for sale, asserting that mold and environmental problems in the sanctuary made the building unusable for his 20-person, predominately African-American congregation. Hicks had hoped to sell the church and use the funds to expand its ministry and move to a new location.

Now, however, with the building listed as historic, the church’s plans are in flux.

“I’m not buying a building that’s not worth anything…,” Feibush said in an interview Monday. “It makes no sense to save the facade. It’s a nonstarter; it’s logistically too challenging.”

With historic protection, the church’s facade cannot be renovated without approval. The property’s interior, however, is eligible for redevelopment.

Still, that kind of renovation would not yield the kind of profit that the congregation had initially sought, according to Jeffrey Hill, a church representative. Hill argued Monday that a historic designation would likely strip the building of its value.

“This was not simply development versus preservation — it’s the economics behind this,” said Hill. “This is taking equity from this African-American congregation.”

Hill said the church planned to appeal the case through the Court of Common Pleas.

Across the industry, observers are split on the effects of historic preservation. Some studies have concluded that designation is favorable to property assessments, providing properties with promised stability. Others, however, have said designation levies arduous restrictions.

In the past, preservation battles have put religious memberships in tough spots. The First African Baptist Church in South Philadelphia sold for $2.05 million in 2016, less than the $3.2 million than the church had initially hoped for from a developer, according to prices disclosed to the Inquirer in 2015.  First African Baptist was the subject of a fierce preservation battle years ago when its pastor sought to sell the property. Ultimately, the church was designated historic before the sale.

It’s unclear to what extent the designation factored into the sale price.

At the same time, redevelopment of churches without demolition has been fruitful. According to a report by the Pew Charitable Trusts, nearly 80 of Philadelphia’s sacred places have been adapted for other uses, including apartments and condos.

On Monday, Beisert said he believed redevelopment of Christian Street Baptist is still possible.

“Do I still want them to get a great price? Of course,” Beisert said. “I wish there was a more thoughtful way this could be done.”

But, he continued, “we have lost so many churches in South Philadelphia, and this is a distinctive building. If people had seen that come down, it would have been seen by the larger community as a big loss.”