An Idea From NYC on Partnerships Between Developers and Religious Institutions

Nobody likes to see old buildings get torn down. Just over the last few years, Philadelphia has seen a torrent of demolitions, with old churches getting torn down at an unprecedented rate. Take, for example, the former New Light Beulah Baptist Church, which has made its home in a building at the northwest corner of 17th & Bainbridge that was originally built around 1870. About a month ago, we told you it would be demolished and replaced by condos or town homes. In the time that’s passed since then, demolition work has gotten underway.

A month ago
Demolition now ongoing

This is obviously very depressing. But the building wasn’t designated historic and as a result, there’s not much anybody could have done to stop the developers from buying the property, tearing it down, and replacing it with high end homes or condos. And as we’ve said before, there’s a push-pull situation between the benefit of designating a property like this as historic and the financial hit the religious institution would take as their property loses value as a result of the designation. Sure, we want to maintain architectural diversity in our neighborhoods. But should we be willing to take money out of the pockets of churches to serve this goal? It’s a hard question to answer.

But maybe there’s another way?

Shaare Zedek synagogue, image from JTA

Last week, a reader sent us an article from JTA which shared an interesting approach being taken by a synagogue on the Upper West Side in New York. Shaare Zedek has made its home on 93rd Street since 1923, but changing times have led to a situation where the congregation can’t maintain its building. The leaders of the synagogue have decided to partner with a developer, who will be building a 14-story building here with 20 condo units. The synagogue will continue to operate at this location, in a community center on the first three floors of the building. When we first read the article, we thought that the facade was being maintained and that the tower would rise behind it. But unfortunately it seems that it will instead get demolished, like so many other sacred spaces through history.

Still, this idea inspired us that there might be similar opportunities in Philadelphia. Could the developers that bought the New Light Beulah Baptist Church have maintained some of the existing building, built a tower rising out of the structure, and allowed the church to remain in operation out of the lower levels of the new building? At 17th & Bainbridge, this is probably a non-starter, due to the small size of the site and what we’d think would be significant neighborhood concerns about height, density, and parking variances that would be needed to make such a project viable. But maybe something like this could work in other locations?

Former WCC school at Broad & South

As we reminded you last week, the Goldenberg Group owns the former WCC school at Broad & South and will surely be an active bidder for Health Center No. 1, next door. Assuming they’re able to buy the health center, they’d have an impressive development site at a prime location. Wouldn’t it be great if this building could stick around, with a tower of some kind rising out of the existing structure? And while the WCC school is gone, bringing another school to this location would seem like a natural fit for the first few floors of a new development. Assuming such a project would restore the window openings to their original huge size, we’d be all about it.

Unfortunately, we couldn’t think of too many other locations where this approach would be feasible. So many of the churches that have been lost have been like New Light Beulah, located in the middle of residential neighborhoods, on relatively small lots. Still, the idea of building above an existing sacred space and entering into a deal that allows a religious institution to remain on the lower floors seems like a tantalizing opportunity at the right location. Do you think such a concept could be successful in Philadelphia? Care to throw out some ideas on sites where it could work?