Neighbors oppose plan to replace Christian Street Baptist Church with $800k townhouses

Residents of Bella Vista love the narrow little side streets that wind through the neighborhood, offering shelter from the buzz of heavy automobile traffic and providing community space for the cozy lines of back-alley rowhouses.

And they are prepared to defend their little slice of Eden, they told Ori Feibush on Tuesday night. The developer faced a skeptical crowd at the Bella Vista Neighbors Association, who questioned his plan to replace the Christian Street Baptist church with five townhomes, a duplex,  and eight parking spaces.

The most adamant opponents were the near neighbors who surround the church on Alder, Salter, and Clifton Streets. These tiny, bucolic streets initially served as towpaths for horses and they can barely fit cars now.

Feibush’s proposal would add rear ground floor garages to townhomes facing Salter and Christian Street, establishing a curb cut on Salter to allow access to a drive aisle between the backs of the two rows of new houses.

But the residents hated the idea of more cars trying to squeeze down their street.

“We are prepared as a neighborhood to put in 12-inch round steel columns along our properties on Salter Street so that no cars will be able to get up or down the street,” said Christopher Pinto*, who served as a spokesperson for the near neighbors on the surrounding narrow streets. “You won’t be able to get a truck down there. Unfortunately, it’s just not going to let anything but the size of a horse down that path. We don’t know what you are doing here, but we can’t have this kind of insanity.”

Feibush holds the demolition permits to move forward with his plan to raze the church, but he needs a variety of variances from the Zoning Board of Adjustment to move forward and build the amount of parking he wants to offer buyers.

The homes presented would rise 38 feet, with ten-foot setback pilot houses on top, and Feibush says he expects them to sell for around $800,000. He thinks it would be hard to charge that much if parking weren’t provided.

A historic gem no one has stepped up to save

The project has proven controversial because the red sandstone and redbrick church is a beloved fixture of the neighborhood. A concerted effort to preserve the 19th-century building foundered at the Historical Commission, which first moved to protect it from demolition but then rescinded its order on a technicality.

Since then Feibush says he worked “with the entire preservation community” to find a buyer. But he hasn’t found anyone who would take it at even 60 percent of the price the church wants to sell it for.

Feibush says he has the property under contract for $1.5 million and the highest alternative offer so far was around $600,000.

The crowd peppered him with questions about preservation options, but he said that simply keeping the façade would be impossible due to the tight confines of the site. The only way to demolish the rear of the building was to go from Christian Street back, he said. He couldn’t imagine that the neighbors on Salter Street would like demolition crews and their attendant vehicles squeezing down the narrow path to pick apart the building from behind.  

“As far as preserving and turning into apartments, everyone who does that in the city has been through the building,” said Feibush, but to no avail.

Preservationists confirmed that Feibush’s account is accurate and that buyers have been looking at the building.

“I’ve been actively seeking a buyer for months,” said Paul Steinke of the Preservation Alliance, on Facebook. “There are some parties interested, so there is hope of saving it. But nothing definite yet, unfortunately.”

Many of the attendees of the Bella Vista Neighbors Association meeting seemed resigned to the destruction of the church. But they wanted Feibush to build smaller houses—his are roughly 3,000 square feet in comparison with what near neighbors say are an average of 1,800 square feet on the surrounding blocks—and of course, they didn’t want him to provide parking that would bring Eden-shattering traffic to Salter Street and its neighbors.

They also contested Feibush’s contention that he would be adding “eyes on the street” and that the drive aisle leading to the garages would give children a place to play.

“The first floor is a foyer, stairs, and a parking space so people will enter and immediately zip up the stairs,” said Larry Weintraub, co-chair of the community group’s zoning committee. “That to me is not eyes on the street.”

In the end, the Bella Vista Neighbors Association attendees voted unanimously against recommending Feibush’s project to the Zoning Board of Adjustment.

The meeting is set for May 16 but Feibush says he has asked for a 45-day continuance to push back his appointment with the ZBA. On Tuesday night, he offered to scrap the pilot houses, and their additional ten feet of height, and put the curb cut for the drive aisle that accesses the rear garages on Christian Street.  

*PlanPhilly initially got Pinto’s name wrong. We apologize for the error. 

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