Developer Ori Feibush: I'm walking away from the Bella Vista church after I demolish it

Aliza Schmidt (left), Charlette Caldwell (center) and Joni Lipson hold signs during a last-ditch protest attempt to stop the planned demolition of the Christian Street Baptist Church in the Bella Vista section of South Philadelphia on Saturday. The demolition is planned in the coming weeks.

Developer Ori Feibush said Saturday that he will no longer be the developer on the controversial Christian Street Baptist Church site in Bella Vista and that he plans to move on from the property after demolishing it in the coming weeks.

In an email Saturday, Feibush said that “the contract for [1020-24] Christian St. was assigned to a new buyer, who will purchase the church after demolition is complete.” He did not provide further details and could not be reached for comment.

Feibush’s decision to move on from the property after razing it marks the latest curveball in the yearlong feud over the fate of the 1890s-built Bella Vista church. Since Feibush put the property under agreement for $1.5 million last year, with plans to demolish it and build $800,000 townhouses in its place, Bella Vista residents and preservationists have pleaded with Feibush to save the building, which they believe both reflects the neighborhood’s Italian history and adds character to the red-hot Bella Vista neighborhood.

In the last week, tensions have sharpened as the church’s demolition date fast approaches. On Saturday morning, about 10 members of RePoint Philadelphia, a political action committee of activists and preservation advocates, as well as some neighbors, protested Feibush’s decision — and asked him to keep his promise from earlier this year that he would transfer his agreement of sale to a preservation-minded buyer, so long as the buyer came up with $1 million cash. In April, Feibush said he would even kick in $500,000 if such a buyer emerged.

Camera icon Caitlin McCabe / Staff
A “Notice of Demolition” was placed on the church’s door.

Last week, such a buyer did emerge. Guy Laren, owner of Constellar Corp., and Stephen Wagner, owner of Wagner Urban Development, offered to put up the $1 million cash to redevelop the building into seven townhouses. But Feibush denied the offer, saying the zoning contingency that the pair attached to the deal, requiring that they obtain a zoning variance before closing the deal, was unacceptable.

In an interview Saturday afternoon, Wagner said he and Laren had been working to revise their offer in negotiations with Feibush, and had scrapped the zoning contingency that Feibush opposed earlier in the week.

Feibush said in an email Saturday that Laren “could not provide proof of funds.” Wagner disputed Feibush’s assertion, saying that the $1 million cash is available but that the pair were not given ample time to provide such proof.

Feibush’s sudden choice to allow another developer to take over, disclosed to the Inquirer on Saturday afternoon, likely throws Laren and Wagner’s negotiations into disarray — and raises more questions about the fate of the site. Feibush did not disclose who the new developer of the site will be, how much was being paid for the property, and what the buyer plans to build. On Monday, Feibush said he had planned to build six $800,000 townhouses, with parking included. Feibush would have needed zoning relief for at least his parking plan.

“The project does not make any sense,” said Wagner, upon hearing of Feibush’s decision. “Why demolish it? Why sell to someone else? He was negotiating with us this morning to purchase the property, until he wasn’t.”

At Saturday’s protest, Robert Hornsby, 48, who lives three doors down from the church, said demolition of the property “would change the character of the neighborhood.” He bought in Bella Vista five years ago, he said, partly because the neighborhood has so many ties to history.

“To see those kind of things be chipped away is a little sad,” Hornsby said. “And in this particular case, there are not many structures like this.”

In a message Saturday morning, before disclosing his decision to transfer to a new developer, Feibush said asbestos remediation on the church would likely begin “next week.” Demolition would likely follow.