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Conversion of Church to theater rattles neighborhood

Portent of the future
Warwick Jones, Editor

It will not be the first time in Charleston that a church is converted to another use. But to our knowledge, that of the New Tabernacle Fourth Baptist on Charlotte Street in Wraggborough will be the first to a theater. And folk in the neighborhood are concerned.

The situation is as follows. The congregation of the Church has declined in numbers. Most of the congregation now lives in West Ashley or North Charleston. They want to sell the church property and build a new structure, or structures in these areas. The sale is pressed by the fact that the church needs renovation but is beyond the capacity of the congregation to fund. The potential purchaser is the Patrick family. They have re-developed other properties in the area - namely the William Aiken House, the American Theater and the building that houses the Fish restaurant. The family wants to buy the church, restore it and convert it to a theater with seating for about 400. It will then be leased to the Charleston Stage Company which will use it for the 2 years that the Dock Street theater is being renovated. After that, the specific use becomes clouded. The theater company will resume residence of Dock Street but will continue to lease the converted church.

Familiar patois
The patois was familiar. Mrs. Celeste Patrick, her architect Glenn Keyes, and Julian Wiles, the head of the theater company assured the community members who gathered to discuss the plans that there was no need to worry. A full and thoughtful restoration was planned, the church's beautiful interior would remain intact, there would be no adverse impact on the neighborhood and there would be no parking problems. And if the neighborhood did not agree to the project, watch out! Somebody else could come in and make an offer for the church and development the property with ill consequences.

Many at the meeting did not buy the story, particularly in relation to parking. Members of the Garden District Association voted to ask the Patrick family to defer the hearing before the Board of Zoning Appeals, which the family agreed to do. The Association will meet again on January 25.

Is it so easy to sell a church?
Before moving onto the specific issues, let's ponder the actual sale. From what was said at the meeting, the congregation and its minister decided to sell, for the reasons already given. Is it so easy to get agreement to sell a church? We understand that church attendance in the nation is declining. But a drive through Charleston and observing the number of new churches suggests that the City is not suffering from religious malaise. But even if attendance is declining in Charleston, and at this church, should the first reaction be to sell the buildings? What about an effort to build the congregation? Maybe the church needs a new minister - after all it is a fine church and its majesty must have some appeal to the faithful. And isn't there a higher authority, that is between the church congregation and God that has some say? And what about the needs of potential future parishioners? The declining attendance may not be an indication of what the future holds. Will the Patrick family "give" back the Church to future generations or will it want "market"?

Are there other options?
Assuming that nothing can be done to boost the congregation, have other options other than conversion to a theater been considered? Most folk did not know the Church was for sale and it has never been advertised. Mrs. Patrick tells us that we should fear the intentions of other developers. Really. How can she be so sure? If the Church is interested in doing the right thing by the neighborhood, why not explore other options? What can be lost?

A potential thorny issue for Charleston
The issue of what to do with churches could be a thorny one for Charleston if attendances do indeed decline. The City has a large number of churches and those in the historic district are more often than not designated buildings. What does the City do if and when other churches decide to close their doors and sell out? Most of the churches were built before the invention of the automobile and the need for parking. Their conversion to meaningful secular use will be a problem for the community, at least if the City maintains a commitment to retaining the character of the historic district.

Need for re-zoning
The conversion of the Church to a theater will require a hearing from the Board of Zoning Appeals. The obligations of the developer in regard to parking are clear and we do not believe Mrs. Patrick is correct in saying that the converted church would be "grandfathered" into not having to meet all parking requirements. Our reading of the ordinance suggests that a 10-year lease is needed. If the parking structure has not been built and the theater company is prepared to commit to only 2 years at the converted church, problems exist. To grant an exception, in our view, is a big stretch.

Parking is major issue
And it was parking probably more than anything else that concerned the community. The planned renovation would provide seating for up to 400 persons. The City ordinance requires the provision of "on site" parking of 1 space per 6 seats, meaning that under the City code, there would need to be 67 spaces. Clearly it can't fully meet this obligation. But it gets by according to the regulations if it can lease the required spaces under a 10- year agreement and within 400 feet of the theater. To fulfill its obligation, the theater plans to lease spaces from City, which in turn plans to build a structure that contains parking facilities on the site of the present Federal Building. Looking at the map of the sites, the parking facilities most likely will be within 400 feet of the church.

What is planned for Federal Building site?
Nobody knows what exactly is planned for the Federal Building site, residents said at the meeting. Mrs. Patrick said the City is planning to call for Request for Proposals shortly and a parking garage will be written into the proposal. But even if the facility becomes a reality, we all know that people don't like to walk, and many will park on the street, despite the threat of parking tickets. It's the invasion of cars, people and buses that the residents fear will upset the tranquility of their quiet neighborhood, both night and day. There will be theater performance at night and education events during the day.

It has taken decades to make progress….
It has taken some decades for Wraggsborough and its sister community of Ansonborough to recover from the degradation of the past. Long-term residents can remember when both communities were largely derelict with decaying houses and neglected infrastructure. Residents have made large investment in renovation and restoration. Both communities have regained their luster and like the historic communities in the rest of Charleston, draw a large number of visitors each year who come to the City to enjoy its historic ambience.

….and now it is threatened
Wraggborough residents now see their investment and achievements threatened. Yes, they would like to see the church restored - but not at the expense of their community. Developments alredy planned along Meeting Street almost certainly will boost pedestrian and vehicular traffic through the Borough. But an insertion of a theater into the heart of the district is too much and could prove terminal. The planned investment by the Patrick family is not known but probably amounts to about $4 million and almost certainly will qualify for Federal and State tax benefits. That of residents who have invested largely without tax benefits, dwarfs this investment.

Commercial developments do affect residential values
One speaker who supported the development and whose husband was a realtor told the meeting that the Dock Street Theater does not affect real estate values surrounding it so residents of Wraggborough should not be fearful. Our response is that values "below Broad" are arguably 20% or higher than Ansonborough and perhaps even higher compared with Wraggsborough Why? Because "below Broad" does not have the intrusion of commercial developments! The more the intrusion, the larger the impact on residential values. Three property owners have told the President of the Garden District that they plan to sell if the theater is approved!

A square peg in a round hole
When the church was first built, it was a round peg in a round hole. To convert the church to a theater makes it a square peg in a still round hole. It simply does not fit and won't fit no matter how greased. Yes, the church is worth saving but not at the expense of the local community. Another use apart from a theater may not be the ideal solution, but at least it need not threaten the community and undermine all the hard work and investment made by its residents. If the Church is to be preserved for its beautiful architecture, then the burden should fall on other shoulders as well as those of Wraggsborough. And if others are not prepared to carry the burden, maybe preservation efforts should be scaled down.

Staff could be intimidated
It will be interesting to hear the opinion of the Historic Charleston Foundation and the Preservation Society as to what is proposed. Almost certainly they would like the Church and its interior preserved but at the same time, we expect they will be concerned as to what happens to the community too. Staff of both preservation bodies may feel intimidated in forming an opinion. The architect retained by the developer is Glenn Keyes, the immediate past president of the Preservation Society. Mrs. Celeste Patrick is on the Board of Historic Charleston Foundation.

Charleston Stage has a viable alternative
And if residents oppose the conversion plans, they should not fear for the theater company. The Charleston Music Hall, close to the Visitors Center is available for use and we understand the owners would welcome Charleston Stage. The theater has a capacity of 900 seats and would easily accommodate audiences anticipated by Charleston Stage.

Your Comments:

Thanks for your thoughtful and insightful letter!

I live next door to the church and I am shocked that our neighborhood has been blindsided by this project. Apparently, the church told the City about their intent to sell over a year ago, but noone ever spoke to the Neighborhood Association about it. We have had no time to investigate other possiblities for use of this beautiful structure (preferably another congregation). To convert a church to commerical use in the middle of a unique residential neighborhood is unconscionable in my view.

Posted by: Judi Murphy at February 1, 2006 02:47 AM

I too live next to the church. Thank you for your in reflective reporting on this thorny issue. From the research I've done, the request to change the church into an entertainment venue in a neighborhood, is inappropriate. Yet, the message I keep getting is, forget it. The Mayor has sent a letter to the Patrick's promising parking, they have the financial means to do whatever they can and get over it. Stop making a fuss. Asidie from the fact that our property will endure months of their workmen (stangers) walking around our yard which we only landscaped last year, the latest plan submitted asks for the northern part of the "deal" (an addtional builing on Eizabeth Street) to be torn down as well. We have been told, "trust us", these are "good people". Well so far nobody has contacted us about our concerns. Thursday through Sunday performances, activity in the evening, noise in our backyard, busses of children being unloaded during the week. The church claims their congregation has declined. Yes, downtown is pricey as we all know. Does this mean when any church in the city has a decline in membership it will be available to become an amusement hall, condos, a grocery store? What can we as property owners count on if we live and are zoned as a "neighborhood"? There seem to be ways to skirt the zoning laws, people with power and money get what they want, with a verbal promise of incresed poilce protection and a letter from the mayor giving over parking spaces to a garage that has not been built...........I for one am disheartened.

Posted by: barbara julius at February 1, 2006 03:35 PM

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