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Bella Vista church emerges as latest example of preservation vs. development tensions in Philly

Developer Ori Feibush planned to raze Christian Street Baptist Church and build single-family homes. Now, however, the property is up for historic designation - sidelining his plans and frustrating a congregation that says it desperately needs the money.

The Christian Street Baptist Church, located at 1020-24 Christian St. in Bella Vista is the latest example of tensions that can flare in Philadelphia as neighborhoods gentrify.
The Christian Street Baptist Church, located at 1020-24 Christian St. in Bella Vista is the latest example of tensions that can flare in Philadelphia as neighborhoods gentrify.Read moreJESSICA GRIFFIN / Staff Photographer

Editor's note: This article was updated Nov. 22, 2017, with the outcome of the Philadelphia Historical Commission's meeting.

When the property located at 1020-24 Christian St. was listed for sale this summer, its description came with an urgent warning.

"Excellent development opportunity," the post began. "The demand for single-family and multifamily residential in this area is particularly high."

"This opportunity," it continued, "will not last long."

By the end of the day, the sprawling 6,500-square-foot property was under agreement.

In a real estate market as strong as Philadelphia's, to have a property sell quickly is far from atypical. But this is no conventional property — nor is its buyer.

When developer Ori Feibush saw the listing for 1020-24 Christian St., better known as the Christian Street Baptist Church, he jumped at a chance to build in a "strong neighborhood," he said. After all, Bella Vista — the neighborhood well-known for its Italian Market and bounded by South Street, Washington Avenue, Sixth and 11th Streets — has seen an influx of cash, new populations, and development in recent decades as the neighborhood has become gentrified. If Feibush were to demolish the church and build five townhouses in its place — the crux of his original plan — it's unlikely that he would have much difficulty finding interest.

So the day that Christian Street Baptist was listed for sale, Feibush's development company, OCF Realty, made a bid: "Just a little shy" of $1.5 million, the church's asking price. Immediately, the church accepted, nixing two other offers.

Now, however, Feibush's plans are on hold. Months after his company bid for the property, Christian Street Baptist is being considered for historic designation after Philadelphia preservation activist Oscar Beisert nominated the property, citing its history as Philadelphia's oldest Italian mission as grounds for preservation. If approved, the designation would protect the church from demolition — and derail Feibush's plans. The proposal was presented this month at a Philadelphia Historical Commission meeting. Further discussion was delayed until the November meeting.

[Update: Since the church was historically designated by the Philadelphia Historical Commission on Nov. 10, confusion continues to swirl around the property's true status. On Monday, the Historical Commission announced that it had incorrectly tallied the group's November vote — meaning, in fact, the church was not designated after all. On Tuesday, preservationists and attorneys challenged that reversal, arguing that the initial vote for preservation should still stand.]

The squabble over the fate of Christian Street Baptist has thrust this neighborhood of 6,000 residents into discord — and has highlighted longstanding tensions between development and preservation in this historic city. Preservation advocates such as Beisert, who argue that Philadelphia could do more to protect landmark properties, have contended, along with the Bella Vista Neighbors Association, that unique buildings such as Christian Street Baptist should be saved for their distinctive architecture and historical significance.

"Once it's gone, it's irrevocable," Beisert said in an interview. "These buildings were built to be a house of worship, but they became community landmarks. This is part of why we have preservation laws — to protect things just like this building."

Feibush and the church's pastor and congregation, meanwhile, have argued that the building is no longer usable. With environmental problems such as mold plaguing the building's sanctuary, Christian Street Baptist, a nearly 20-member, predominantly African American congregation, needs the money from the sale to relocate and expand, said the church's pastor, Clayton Hicks. Designating the church as historic, Hicks fears, could both scrap his deal with Feibush and reduce the property's value.

The dust-up is emblematic of the problems Philadelphia neighborhoods are facing as the city continues to change. Across Philadelphia, tensions have proliferated as development has spread and preservationists have ramped up efforts to protect more properties. Sacred places — churches, temples, and mosques — have been particularly vulnerable to these clashes as religious participation has declined and sacred buildings have fallen into disrepair.

According to a report issued by the Pew Charitable Trusts this month, about 10 percent of Philadelphia's 839 sacred places have been adapted for other uses, such as housing and offices. Between 2011 and 2015, Pew found, at least 23 sacred places in the city were demolished, mostly by developers. Roughly 5 percent sit vacant.

Complicating the situation is the fact that many sacred buildings are difficult to renovate, the report said. Due to limited disposable funds and other problems, congregations have often ignored building defects and deferred maintenance, exacerbating the repairs needed. Complex layouts and failed heating and electric systems can make development even harder, Pew said.

Feibush said that's part of the reason he planned to demolish — not renovate.

"It's not worth it," Feibush said. "Honestly, the cost would exceed the value of the parcel."

Having to renovate instead "would come at the cost of a $1 million [drop in price] for the church," Feibush continued. "For a party that was expecting a check of $1.4 million, that $1 million difference is huge."

For years, Feibush has been a brazen, if not controversial, figure in Philadelphia real estate. Well-known for the market-rate homes he has built in the city's historically lower-income neighborhoods, Feibush has clashed with nearly everyone from residents to city officials as he has developed across the city. Twice in the last two years, Feibush has sued City Councilman Kenyatta Johnson, accusing him of interfering in the sales of vacant Point Breeze lots. And twice this year, Feibush's developments have come under threat from arsonists.

While Feibush has recently dabbled in some redevelopment, including his intention to convert the Walter Smith School, he said his plans to demolish Christian Street Baptist should have been no surprise.

"The listing itself described the parcel as a great development site for homes," Feibush said.

In fast-changing Bella Vista, Feibush's plan could fit in. The neighborhood, originally settled by Italian immigrants, has become increasingly wealthier and more diverse in the last two decades as development has boomed. Since 2000, according to Pew, 25 percent of the new housing built citywide between 2000 and 2014 was in the Bella Vista/Hawthorne area. During that same time, the area's median household income surged 45 percent to $75,000. All the while, sales of million-dollar homes in the neighborhood have been occurring more frequently.

"Residential is certainly king now," said Eugene Desyatnik, president of the Bella Vista Neighbors Association. "One by one we see our laundromats converted to residential. I live in a former grocery store. Residential is what sells now. … It's certainly changing the fabric of the neighborhood."

Hicks, the 42-year-old pastor, said that is part of the reason why his congregation needs to leave. As members of the church have moved out of the neighborhood, attendance has dropped. Funds to repair the church have been limited. Selling the property and using that money to move elsewhere, he believes, could help boost his congregation — and expand the church's ministry.

"The money will not be used to pad the pockets of the pastor," Hicks said. "It will be used to relocate in a place that would be better for us."

However, Hicks fears that historic designation would derail those plans.

Observers across the industry are split when it comes to determining whether historic preservation can affect property values. Multiple studies have concluded that historic designation is generally favorable to assessments, providing properties with status and reassurance that a property or district's character will not change. Many others have argued that historic designation can impose burdensome restrictions on property owners, making it difficult to renovate in a cost-effective way.

Still, Beisert, who has nominated dozens of properties in the last few years, said protecting endangered buildings such as Christian Street Baptist helps preserve Philadelphia's history.

"If you don't nominate the things that are endangered, then no one realizes that there is a problem," Beisert said. "Maybe an article gets published, and the people who live there are sad to see it go, but this is not constantly being brought up as an issue."

"My goal is to find a different buyer who wants to preserve the [church]… and I think there is a result that can lead to a positive for the congregation and the community," he continued. "If that building were to get torn down, it just seems like a waste of our heritage."