It's not every day that a church goes on the selling block. So when the congregation of First Christian Fellowship Church in University Heights decided to look for more modern digs, community activists began wondering about the future of the 77-year-old church its flock currently calls home.
The former Park Boulevard Methodist Episcopal Church, at the intersection of Park and Polk Avenue, is a familiar sight along a thoroughfare dotted with houses of worship, with its tan brickwork, arched stained-glass windows and red-tiled steeple.
"It's one of University Heights' oldest landmarks. It's a marvelous structure, full of historical significance," said Ernestine "Ernie" Bonn, a local activist who's watched the evolution of the church for years.
But the church is now in escrow to a development group with an eye toward turning it into what is believed to be a retail-and-housing complex, and activists like Bonn and Alex Bevil are worried. Although word first trickled out that the group intended to demolish the entire church complex, the plan now appears to include retention of a portion of the church-although a project investor wouldn't confirm that.
Bevil, a state parks historian by trade, is also University Heights' unofficial historian. His involvement in the community dates back to the late 1980s, when historic structures were regarded with at least a small degree of reverence. Bevil spent several years documenting and photographing numerous buildings in the area that were at least 50 years old.
Of the Park Boulevard Methodist church, Bevil concluded "that it was potentially historic... mainly for its architecture, the stained-glass art inside and because of its social connection with the first suburban expansion of San Diego circa 1920s."
A streetcar line once passed in front of the church-as did another along nearby University Avenue-setting the stage for the area as an important transportation hub that witnessed its growth as residents fled the hustle and bustle of downtown life for quieter surroundings.
"This was a suburban node where people who used to go to church downtown were saying there's now a need for a church for their denomination out there," he said, which is why you find churches of Catholic, Methodist, Baptist, Lutheran and even Swedenborgian faiths along Park Boulevard.
These were gathering places, important bastions of social interaction where neighbors met neighbors and stayed current on local interests and issues. So it's not difficult to understand why University Heights historic preservationists grow wary when change is in the air.
The rumblings grew more distinct last month when Bonn wrote a small item for the University Heights Community Association News monthly newspaper in which she pondered the future of the former Methodist church. "We have heard that the church complex has been purchased by Hip Pocket Investments, and that they plan to demolish the buildings," Bonn wrote.
Local activists know little about Hip Pocket Investments, and Bonn now says the information she received for the article wasn't completely correct. But city planning officials have said the plans they've heard about call for demolition of the buildings south of the steeple tower-including the original pastor's cottage, or parsonage-and construction of 35 condominiums on the site and retail space along Park Boulevard.
"Wow," was Bevil's response when told of the plans. "I don't think that the person who is buying the property quite understands the process. Maybe he should have done his homework before thinking about buying it. But maybe he got into it innocently."
John McConnell, an investor in the proposed purchase, said plans for the church site are in flux. He said he'd have a seismic expert inspect the church soon to see if it's economically feasible to retrofit the structure. So, until the viability of retaining at least a portion of the church is settled, McConnell said it is impossible to know if the church will be demolished or not.
The dilemma facing churches today, McConnell said, is a sign of the times. "I've talked to a number of other churches, and they increasingly are talking about, "Why don't we get into something like an office building,' because they want to avoid this whole issue [of historic significance]. Their money is in their building, and if they move into an office building then they get revenue back to fund their church and their mission."
Daniel P. Lantis, the charismatic pastor of First Christian Fellowship Church, is proud of the work his congregation has done to bring back a building that was in serious disrepair when they bought it for $400,000 five years ago. At that time, the church-which had closed in 1994 due to a dwindling Methodist contingent-was serving as a community center for the homeless, and it showed. Used needles and empty bottles were strewn everywhere. The hardwood floors were black with grime and dirt. "This place was disgusting," the pastor said.
But with the charity of volunteers, the church looks healthy again. "Man, I'm going to miss it. It's a phenomenal church," Lantis said after a recent jubilant, gospel-tinged Sunday service. "But it is our plan to go on and meet new people and grow."
Why the decision to move? Lantis mentioned electrical bills of $2,000 a month but then added, "We're not moving because of hardship." Instead, he noted a "grand opportunity" that arose when the buyers offered $2 million for the site, a five-fold increase in the congregation's investment.
"Very few people in life find themselves in a situation like we're in," Lantis said. Proceeds from the church sale will not only allow the congregation to find a more modern building but will also allow the church to continue on its mission, which includes a variety of programs, such as helping Haitian children, the pastor said.
He also believes the new owners understand the historic significance of the church, although he's quick to note that the city has never deemed the church historic. Lantis is particularly entranced by the stained-glass art that adorns the church, including pieces by nationally renowned local artist Fred Wieland, who installed the iconic windows in the church in 1930, four years after the church was moved a couple of blocks to its present location. Two of the most intricate pieces alone have been valued at $200,000.
Because of state legislation passed in 1994 and narrowly upheld in 2000 by the state Supreme Court, cities can no longer give churches landmark status. Then-Assembly Speaker Willie Brown sponsored the legislation, which gave religious groups a special exemption to demolish noncommercial property that no longer met their needs or was too expensive to maintain.
Historian Bevil knows all about the legislation, but he's convinced that since he's found historical significance with the church, the new owners will have to work with the city when it comes time to seek a demolition permit.
"While it can't be designated historic on the local level, it still can be designated at the national and state level," Bevil explained. "The work we did in the late '80s means the church is eligible for such status and would qualify for [state] review. In seeking a demolition permit, the new owners will have to prove it's not going to affect a historic resource. Then it would be up to people like Ernie and myself to review whatever information is presented by the owner."
Bevil says he's not trying to be an obstructionist, but he thinks the new owners should know what they're getting into. "We'll be more than happy to discuss alternatives, and if you don't want to do it, fine," he said. "But you're probably going to run into a bunch of people who will oppose your project. The issue isn't whether or not the building is historic because it's going to be torn down. Like I tell folks, either it is or it ain't historic."
Bevil said churches are the most difficult structures to convert, but Lantis is more optimistic. "I've seen some pretty unique uses, including a Starbucks, a medical office and even one guy in Northern California bought a church and now lives in it," the pastor said.
In the end, Lantis hopes the new owners will treat the old church with reverence. "I've met with Mr. McConnell, and I think he has a sense of the place. He understands the importance of the artwork. I don't think he's thinking about putting dynamite under the church or anything."