In surprise reversal, Christian Street Baptist no longer protected from wrecking ball

When the Historical Commission met earlier this month, it seemed like the Christian Street Baptist Church was added to the local historic register, sparing it from a developer’s wrecking ball. At the end of a long and contentious debate, the commissioners voted five-to-four with two abstentions to protect the Bella Vista church. At the time, thinking that Robert’s Rules of Order applied, all parties involved believed that the designation motion passed.

Except now, two weeks later, the city’s Department of Planning and Development says that the Historical Commission didn’t actually vote to protect it.

Instead, spokesman Paul Chrystie said in a conference call with reporters, while they apply in all other Historical Commission proceedings, Robert’s Rules do not apply to the commission’s votes. Under the Historical Commission’s rules, a majority of those present — not just those voting — must vote to add a building to the register. Given that there were eleven commissioners at the November meeting (including the two abstaining members), the vote failed because six votes were needed to pass it.

That means the church was not added to the local historic register. Christian Street Baptist can now go ahead with their plans to sell the building to developer Ori Feibush, who intends to demolish the church to make room for five or six townhomes. The shrinking congregation decided to sell the iconic neighborhood fixture because they didn’t have the funds to fix the late 1800s structure. When the church went up for sale, local preservation activist Oscar Beisert quickly filed a nomination in an attempt to keep the destruction of the building’s exterior.

Feibush said that his team realized the error on Monday, after “someone with more experience in these things” called and told him to take a closer look at the rules. Rule 4.6e of the Historical Commission’s regulations states “A majority of the members present at the time of voting, including any members abstaining, is required to adopt a motion.” On Tuesday, Feibush alerted the commission to the error, held a conference call with the church, went back under contract, and filed for demolition permits. Feibush told PlanPhilly that he plans to begin demolition in early January.

The Historical Commission’s executive director, Jon Farnham, said he’s never known of anything like this occurring before. He’s worked for the commission for around 15 years.

Contacted about this twist, Beisert said he wasn’t yet aware of the claim that his nomination had actually failed even as it appeared to succeed.

“This isn’t retroactively changing the ruling, this is correcting the ruling,” said Paul Chrystie, a spokesperson for the city. “Clearly, we wish that we had some historical perspective so that when this happened, the error was not made.”

The city contacted the congregation, Feibush, and nominator Beisert about the error on Monday morning. (The church declined to comment.)

In theory, the building could be nominated to the local historic register again, but absent a significant change to the nomination itself, it is unlikely to succeed. If the demolition permits are approved before another nomination is submitted, however, that effort would be preempted.

“Not knowing or understanding that at the time of the meeting is a big problem,” said Beisert. “Isn’t that something they should have basic knowledge of? To make it more confusing, sometimes it’s unclear how people vote in those meetings and because they don’t call a roll. This is just another example of how there is no consistency.”  

*This story has been updated for clarification and to add Beisert’s quote.

Dear reader, your support is essential for PlanPhilly’s independent, watchdog coverage. Please help us continue providing the local public interest news that you value in 2018 by making a tax-deductible donation during our once-a-year membership drive. Thank you for eleven great years of coverage on the built environment and counting!

WHYY is your source for fact-based, in-depth journalism and information. As a nonprofit organization, we rely on financial support from readers like you. Please give today.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal