For 18 years Reverend Charles Harper served as pastor of Paradise Baptist Church, the largest congregation in Grove Park. Harper, 69 and lifelong Atlantan, has seen the region go from prosperity to dereliction. But these days, the church’s location on Donald Lee Hollowell Parkway looks like a front-row seat to explosive gentrification, with the BeltLine, Microsoft’s future campus, sprawling Westside Park and now new homes row over $800,000 nearby. Harper doesn’t necessarily view radical change as negative, at least not for homeowners who play their cards right. As a seasoned real estate agent and one of the city’s leading authorities on sale churches, the pastor knows his stately brick sanctuary and surrounding property could fetch as much as $12 million.
Like other congregational leaders, Harper faces both opportunities and dilemmas. It’s a situation weighed down by churches across the city in a historically hot housing market, where tradition is clashing with the temptation to cash in and move on. Harper’s 49,000 square foot church needs $4 million in repairs. Congregations in cities across the country are shrinking, as church attendance rates drop to historic lows and residents, especially in lower-income Atlanta neighborhoods, have been squeezed by escalating costs of relocate or have sold houses to investors, which means fewer members feeding coffers. The Covid-19 shutdowns saved lives, but they also allowed parishioners to watch church on TV or online at home, making cavernous shrines less necessary. Meanwhile, developers’ appetite for church land is more voracious than Harper’s has seen in more than 40 years of real estate sales, and those cash, no-questions-asked offers can be hard to come by. to refuse.
“It’s a struggle, because a lot of people don’t want to go,” Harper said. “They feel that the church is the anchor of the community.”
Costly Atlanta churches being repurposed or bulldozed for more expensive development is nothing new. Think downtown the Tabernacle (now a frenzied concert hall), Buckhead’s iconic Second Church of Christ, Scientist (replaced by a 35-story luxury apartment tower) or Friendship and Mount Vernon Baptist (both shaved, after handsome payments, for Mercedes-Stade Benz). The most recent phenomenon, as city housing prices and BeltLine fervor have reached new heights, is that developers are focusing on smaller, even tiny properties, many of which are in poor condition or unoccupied. Keeping up with the magnitude of the trend can be difficult, says Karen Hatcher, president of the Atlanta Realtors Association. Churches may fall under multiple zoning codes and some transactions occur off-market. She advises congregations to ensure they are getting fair market value before uprooting. Reverend Harper’s colleague Rick Arzet, a church specialist at Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices Georgia Properties, said “developers are offering people a fortune” these days, enough that some congregations “will sell if they can find a place to go or not”.
Harper sold a dozen churches in the city of West End and Pittsburgh around Oakland Cemetery, all to developers, almost all black congregations. Each congregation has been able to remain intact, Harper says, often in better, larger facilities in the suburbs, with a supply of dough in the bank for programs and ministry. “Ninety percent of the time it was a debt-free to debt-free transaction,” Harper says. “These are life-changing experiences.” (Selling long-standing property may not be a sin or even a taboo, but it doesn’t seem to be a source of pride either: any small church that had sold church property and moved on to something else did respond to interview requests for this story.)
The Memorial Drive corridor became the epicenter of the church’s redevelopment. In a dozen blocks in Kirkwood, for example, five shrines have been razed since 2019 or are in the process of being demolished, with more than a hundred townhouses and other infill housing replacing them. Closer to the popular Eastside Trail of the BeltLine in Reynoldstown, Harper is contracted for another church priced at $1.2 million for less than half an acre. Baptist churches do particularly good real estate: unlike those with church hierarchies, partnerships with large brokerage firms, or strict protocol for disposing of properties, Baptist congregations are autonomous and free to sell as they see fit. hear, said Harper. Since all church property in Georgia is tax-exempt, there is often no incentive to rush a sale, even when abandoned churches begin to crumble.
Opes developer Tim White has snapped up one of these empty churches on Memorial Drive (price for this acre: undisclosed), which his company is replacing with five modern-style homes, priced from $900,000. He has managed projects across the United States, from St. Petersburg to Phoenix and Minneapolis. Across the street is land where another church has also been cleared for houses. “I can’t say I saw that [trend] in other markets,” says White.
One of the most high-profile church conversions in recent memory was the metamorphosis of Druid Hills United Methodist Church from a 1920s Greek Revival-style sanctuary to an amenity-rich condo complex with an intact steeple. , with prices starting at $640,000. Brian Davison, managing partner of developer Minerva, says the process went so well that his company worked with a Tucker church to turn its baseball fields into housing, along with two other church properties under contract.
Reverend Andy Woodworth joined the Druid Hills congregation just after moving to a more multi-purpose facility, Neighborhood Church in Candler Park, whose sale is being completely renovated. Woodworth fondly reflects on the process of bidding farewell to the old sanctuary, even though it would no longer be used to carry on God’s work. With one regret: Knowing what they now know about the changing Atlanta housing market, Woodworth wishes their former church had a guaranteed affordable housing element built into the deal. “Of course,” says the neighborhood church co-pastor, “the hindsight is 20/20.”
This article originally appeared in our August 2022 issue.