South Philly developer Ori Feibush changes course, plans to demolish 19th-century church

The demolition notice distributed across parts of Bella Vista last week caught many South Philadelphia residents by surprise.

“We are writing to inform you that we expect to begin demolishing our church on Monday, June 18,” began the letter, drafted by Christian Street Baptist Church Inc. “The proposed demolition is for the entire [two] story structure.”

What the letter didn’t say: Developer Ori Feibush’s offer to help preserve the 1890s church in the heart of the booming neighborhood is officially off the table.

The announcement to demolish the Christian Street Baptist Church marks the latest twist in a year-long saga. After agreeing to buy the church at 1020-24 Christian St. last summer for $1.5 million, with plans to raze it and build townhouses in its place, Feibush in April said he would be willing to transfer his agreement to a preservation-minded buyer, who could redevelop the church while allowing it to stand.

To sweeten the deal, Feibush said he would be willing to kick in $500,000 — as long as the buyer was willing to put up $1 million cash.

At that time, Feibush said such a transaction would be “good for the neighborhood, good for the church, good for everyone” — and it would represent a victory for preservationists amid the massive development-and-demolition boom in Philadelphia. Paul Steinke, executive director of the Preservation Alliance of Philadelphia, immediately began searching for such a buyer. For weeks, potential buyers toured the property, with plans for apartments, day cares, offices, and more. All of the offers, Feibush said, came up “woefully short.”

This month, the church and Feibush decided they had waited long enough. Church officials alerted the neighborhood to demolition plans, and Feibush and his team wrapped the property with construction fences.

Then, on Thursday, an email hit Feibush’s inbox: Two developers offered to meet his $1 million asking price.

Feibush’s response, according to Philadelphia developer Stephen Wagner, who offered to put up the $1 million along with developer Guy Laren, was that Christian Street Baptist Church is no longer for sale.

“We did get an offer at the price point, but it was loaded with contingencies that were rather suspect to us,” Feibush said Monday. “The church is not willing to wait another three to four months [to settle the deal]…. We have exhausted every effort.”

Camera icon CAITLIN MCCABE
The Christian Street Baptist Church has been the subject of a development vs. preservation dispute for the last year.

The struggle underscores how difficult preservation in Philadelphia remains. Saving the church building, which Feibush and church officials say has some structural instability, would require not only the money to acquire the property, but sufficient funds to stabilize and redevelop it. In Philadelphia, where few incentives exist to encourage developers to preserve properties rather than raze them, many builders prefer to rely on the wrecking ball.

The debate also represents a wider conversation across the city amid Philadelphia’s development boom. In neighborhoods such as Bella Vista, where demand for homes is particularly high, many developers prefer to seize development opportunities rapidly.

According to Feibush and Wagner, the pair’s offer did come with more than just the $1 million. Wagner and Laren were willing to put up the money in cash with “no financing” or “due diligence issues,” they said in their email, but they stipulated that they would need a zoning variance before closing the deal to ensure they could redevelop the church into seven townhouses. The property is zoned to allow for attached and semi-detached single-family houses on individual lots.

Asking at the “eleventh hour” for such a zoning contingency, which could take weeks or months to achieve, Feibush said Monday, would be an impossible burden for the church and its congregation, which has been waiting since last summer to settle the deal and use the money to relocate to a new location — one without the moisture and other environmental issues that the congregation says the Bella Vista location has.

“Their ministry has been stifled by this whole fiasco, quite frankly, and before their ministry is stifled to the point of no return, they would like to move forward and keep their ministry and grow in their new location,” said Jeffrey Hill, owner and president of Chest-Mount Realty, who has been representing the congregation. “To come back a year later with someone wanting to change the zoning is kind of ridiculous.”

Camera icon CAITLIN MCCABE
The neighborhood surrounding the Christian Street Baptist Church.

Wagner, owner of Wagner Urban Development, which focuses on renovation and preservation, said Monday that he would be willing to reevaluate the zoning contingency to make the deal work.

“If that’s a point of contention, we could revisit that,” Wagner said. “That [concern] was never voiced to us.”

Feibush responded to that in a text message later Monday, “I would be willing to speak with Guy [Laren] if he removed all contingencies and settled immediately. That said, it’s incredible to me that we are even discussing selling this church to [Laren], a developer [who] is actively destroying one of the most magnificent buildings in Philadelphia. … I don’t believe for a second that he would preserve this building.”

In West Philadelphia, on 43rd and Chestnut Streets, Laren, owner of Constellar Corp., secured a permit this year to tear down Christ Memorial Reformed Episcopal Church, which spans a full city block in Spruce Hill. But Laren has worked to preserve buildings, including a Frank Furness-designed church in West Philadelphia. He could not be reached for comment Monday.

If Feibush, Laren, and Wagner do not revisit the proposed rezoning, Feibush said Monday, he plans to start asbestos abatement on the property next week, with demolition soon thereafter. After listening to community feedback — including much resistance — on his plan last month, Feibush said, he now plans to build six new townhouses on the lot, at a price of nearly $800,000 each. Feibush would need zoning relief to allow for parking.