More than 10 months after developer Ori Feibush put the historic Christian Street Baptist Church under contract with plans to demolish it and build seven residential units in its place, the picturesque Bella Vista church is still standing. No shovels are in the ground. And while a large, yellow demolition notice hangs on the front door, the church that last year sparked a widespread preservation controversy will not face a wrecking ball anytime soon.
For the last four months, Feibush — in partnership with the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia — has been quietly shopping the property to preservation-minded buyers, with the goal of transferring his nearly $1.5 million agreement of sale to the new purchaser. So far, more than a dozen people hoping to buy the church and preserve it have toured the 7,200-square-foot, L-shaped property. Thus far, all of the offers, Feibush said, have come up “woefully short.”
Still, Feibush said in an interview earlier this month, there is “no shot clock” counting down until demolition. At least not yet.
It “may be demolished — I don’t want to get anyone’s hopes up because we have not been able to find a reasonable alternative,” Feibush said. “But I want to make an effort to try.”
The attempt to find a preservation-minded buyer to whom Feibush can assign his contract represents a surprising — and even, some say, a confusing — turnabout from just six months ago, when he and some of Philadelphia’s most prominent preservationists faced off at Philadelphia Historical Commission meetings. At the time, Feibush — the Philadelphia developer known for his contentious clashes with City Councilman Kenyatta Johnson — was fiercely fighting the historic designation nomination that preservationist Oscar Beisert had submitted just days after Feibush made his $1.5 million bid. The way Feibush saw it at the time, the property was ripe for redevelopment in the fast-gentrifying neighborhood. Beisert, however, argued that the church was an architectural relic — one exemplifying the heritage of Italian immigrants who occupied the neighborhood after Irish and black residents had moved on.
Feibush’s attempt to find a new preservationist buyer also comes at a time when the city is mulling how to better preserve historic properties such as this one. Compared with other U.S. cities, Philadelphia drastically under-performs its peers when it comes to local preservation incentives. Although a new task force is exploring how to fix the city’s preservation troubles, both developers and preservationists agree: Philadelphia’s solutions must be swift and significant to make any kind of difference.
When the Christian Street Baptist Church was presented to the city’s Historical Commission last November, the board originally sided with Beisert — protecting the church, constructed in 1890, from demolition. Then, just days later, the preservation body backtracked: It had counted its votes wrong. The church was not historically preserved, after all.
About that time, Feibush filed for zoning permits allowing for demolition of the church, located at 1020-24 Christian St. He told the Inquirer and Daily News in November that he hoped to begin razing the property in “early 2018” and begin construction on the five homes and one duplex shortly thereafter.
Somewhere between then and now, however, Feibush reconsidered.
“I genuinely was not perhaps as aware as I would have been or should have been to the aesthetic significance of this building to this neighborhood,” Feibush, president and founder of development company OCF Realty, said in a recent interview. Saving the church, rather than demolishing it, he added, “would certainly be good for the neighborhood, good for the church, good for everyone.”
“I’m not interested in re-trading” or backing out of the deal, Feibush continued. “… My commitment matters to the church and it matters to me. My number one priority is to honor what I have signed. If there’s a win for everyone … that’s great, too.”
In an effort to drum up more interest in the property, Feibush recently and privately offered to kick in as much as $500,000 if the new buyer puts up $1 million — thereby meeting Feibush’s $1.5 million agreement with the church.
Still, even the most serious potential buyers have yet to offer enough money, and the process remains at a “standstill,” said Paul Steinke, executive director of the Preservation Alliance. Meanwhile, the nearly 30-member, predominantly black congregation that once occupied Christian Street Baptist Church is left waiting on the $1.5 million it needs for a new, permanent worship space.
“They are very frustrated that it’s been held up so long,” said Jeffrey Hill, owner and president of Chest-Mount Realty, who has been publicly representing the congregation. “They are not in a comfortable place of worship.”
Starting this month, Feibush began paying the congregation $100 a day to assist with rent at a temporary location.
One reason for the lack of preservation offers, Feibush believes, is that the asking price remains high — even with his contribution — for a building grappling with a limited footprint, some structural instability, and mold.
There are “not so many creative things you can do” with the building, Feibush said. Interested parties have explored retrofitting the building for everything from day cares to apartments to offices. “It’s just a very small project for the amount of energy required to stabilize the structure. It’s tough — I won’t say impossible — but it’s a very tough proposition.”
“It’s part of the reason why our city would be amazing if there was some type of public pool of money available to developers to preserve buildings,” Feibush continued. “Historic tax credits do not get you anywhere — there needs to be dollars.”
Feibush’s cry for more local preservation incentives comes at a time when Philadelphia is rethinking its preservation strategy after years of historically designating only a minimal number of properties amid the city’s robust housing boom. Despite 68 percent of its buildings having been constructed before 1945, Philadelphia has added just 2.2 percent of properties to the local historic register, protecting them from demolition.
Honoring a campaign promise, Mayor Kenney convened a task force to evaluate historic preservation strategies. Since it was established nearly a year ago, however, no concrete suggestions have emerged. The task force is expected to release two more reports this year, analyzing other cities’ best practices and proposing solutions for Philadelphia. However, task force members have expressed frustration and skepticism with the process thus far.
“If we can find some incentives that are not onerous on the city’s budget for rewarding historic designation, then we might find property owners embracing it rather than resisting it,” Steinke said. “Real estate is a money game, and to a great degree, if preservation does not make economic sense, a lot of folks will not want to embrace it.”
“Other cities and states have learned that lesson and have far greater historic rehabs than we do,” Steinke continued. “We should be ashamed of that.”
Currently, both federal and state tax credits are available for developers in Pennsylvania, though the federal tax credit program was weakened by the GOP-led Congress last year, and the state tax credit program will sunset next year. Beyond that, few local incentives exist beyond the 10-year tax abatement to encourage Philadelphia developers to preserve historic properties.
Many cities nationwide have embraced local preservation incentives — experimenting with grants and loans, zoning and parking relief, and preservation tax abatements, among other methods. In Cook County, Ill., for example, the county containing Chicago, officials in 1997 adopted a special real estate tax assessment classification to encourage preservation of “landmark” buildings: Provided that substantial rehabilitation is completed, the county stipulates, property owners can have their tax assessment reduced for 12 years.
Seattle offers everything from zoning code relief to building code relief to financial property assessment incentives similar to Cook County’s. Park County, Colo., near Colorado Springs, provides developers access to small grants. San Antonio, Texas, allows historic-property owners to choose from two different local tax incentives.
According to Feibush, there is no “one size fits all approach” to encourage preservation, but Philadelphia’s current tax abatement, he said, has “no consequence on preservation.”
Instead, he said, a more appropriate solution is “some kind of board or fund that looks at a property on a case-by-case basis and provides dollars to developers eager to participate in preservation. Dollars available for relief for these types of things could be the missing link to preserving our city.”
Beisert, in rare unison with Feibush, echoed the developer’s assessment.
“In most cases, [Philadelphia’s] tax abatement, as it currently stands, disincentivizes the preservation and reuse of large buildings of architectural, cultural or historical significance,” Beisert said in a message. “A church conversion project always comes with more complexity and risk, making it a no-go when put on the same playing field as townhouses in a hot neighborhood.”
What that means for Philadelphia, Beisert continued: “Projects that yield the least amount of public good are the ones getting the greatest development incentive.”