By the BHCA Executive Committee
Strawbridge United Methodist Church was purchased at auction a few years ago by Greg Kamenetz, president of Bolton in the Belfry, LLC, in a last-ditch effort to save the historic building from a wrecking ball and give the community some control and input into its renovation and use. Emergency scaffolding and structural repairs were made to stabilize the structure, but the church, as well as the parsonage next door, will require intense and costly renovations to make them usable.
Last fall, Kamenetz invited Bolton Hill community leaders to tour the structure and participate in an envisioning session to think of new ways to use this old space.
We threw every idea possible onto large pieces of white planning paper, everything from keeping it a church, to making it into a yoga studio, a community center, a theater, a school, a restaurant or brewpub – you name it, we put it on the list. Whatever the space was to become, it had to make financial sense for Kamenetz and Bolton in the Belfry, LLC. That criteria immediately ruled out use of the building for community or nonprofit development, given the enormous cost of renovation. (Note that MICA already decided against purchasing the building and so is not available to partner in a redevelopment effort.)
The owner’s development team reviewed all these ideas and in February, they presented an initial plan to the BHCA Zoning Committee and members of the Architectural Review Committee in February that included 9 luxury rental units (3 in the parsonage and 6 in the main chapel) and some commercial or office space in the main chapel. The goal was to retain as much of the church’s unique character – stained glass windows, stone walls, turrets, skylights – as possible. The BHCA planning group asked the development team to revise the plan for all residential units, which they did at another onsite walkthrough in March, and which the Zoning Committee unanimously approved.
At the April BHCA Board meeting, the developer presented the plans. The 11 public parking spaces immediately adjacent to the church along Wilson and Park Ave. meet the minimum requirement for parking, but they explained that they would be seeking a minor zoning variance for lot size.
The lot is currently 10,400 ft2. Zoning laws require 1,100 ft2 lot area per unit, which means that for 11 units, they lack a total of 1,700 ft2., or 14.05%. The variance would be requested on the basis of the vertical space afforded by the majority of these units, which will have two-story open floor plans with ceiling lofts to take advantage of the soaring church space and make up for in floor square footage.
All but one of the 21 board members present voted to approve the plan.
Since that meeting, Bolton Hill residents have expressed numerous concerns about the specifics of the development plan as well as parking.
To provide an opportunity to further discuss those issues, BHCA is holding a special, public board meeting at the church on Thursday, May 3 at 6:00 p.m. so that neighbors can tour the space, get a better idea of what is being planned, and ask questions of the builder, Ben Frederick III of Ben Frederick Realty, Inc.
In the event that this meeting spurs the board to reconsider their vote on the previous motion to approve the plan, a motion would have to be made to overturn that decision and voted on by a quorum of board members before any new motion could be made.
BHCA is excited about the possibilities for this property and encourages all interested neighbors to attend the meeting. Please bring a flashlight, as there is very little artificial light in the building at the present time. Strawbridge Church is also an open construction site, so please leave children at home and wear sturdy, covered-toe shoes (no heels or sandals).