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A final amen or born again? Neighbors divided as proposed development includes demolition of historic church

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Posted at 5:47 PM, Feb 09, 2022

CLEVELAND — A dilapidated yet historic former church with roots pre-dating the Civil War faces the possibility of demolition as part of a proposed redevelopment project in the heart of Cleveland’s Old Brooklyn neighborhood. The possible redevelopment project, which includes 50 apartment units and thousands of square feet in retail space, has been met with a groundswell of opposition from some longtime residents and business owners.

Located at the confluence of Memphis Ave. and Pearl Rd., St. Luke’s Church lost its congregation nearly a decade ago, bringing about an unceremonious end to the church that was established in 1839. The church was effectively re-built in 1903 and has endeared itself to generations of Clevelanders with its humble red-bricked exterior.

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John Young, whose family pest control business has been operating in Old Brooklyn since 1908, has been one of the ardent supporters in seeing St. Luke’s saved or, at the very least, having a pause put in place before the church is demolished.

“When you’re talking about knocking out another tooth on Main Street, that’s where I really have a problem with this,” Young said. “Just knocking it down and starting over, that’s not the way you re-build Main Street. You rebuild it with creativity, knowledge, getting the experts to the table. That’s how you do it.”

After St. Luke’s congregation uttered its final amen on Easter Sunday in 2014, community leaders and the Old Brooklyn Community Development Corp. have wrestled with what to do with the historic structure and the vitally important property it sits on.

“The revitalization… of that corner, that’s been our highest goal as we’ve explored the various options of redevelopment,” said Lucas Reeve, the interim executive director of the Old Brooklyn Community Development Corp. “How do we help that corner become the main and main of downtown Old Brooklyn in the Brighton Corridor?”

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With recent renovations and investments in the area, including the newly-opened Brighton Park across from the Metroparks Zoo, the St. Luke’s site presents a tremendous opportunity to further Old Brooklyn’s growth. What to do with it depends on who you ask.

The church property had been in the possession of the county land bank until it was transferred into the OBCDC’s possession earlier this month, according to county property records. The local community development corporation, however, has been intimately involved in the property for the past few years, including marketing the former church property to interested developers.

“No buyer emerged. I think a lot of folks walked through and just couldn’t get their heads wrapped around the cost to make the building a re-use that’s of benefit,” Reeve said. “It’s been described to us as being in very poor condition. Aside from the envelope itself, imagining some kind of re-use of the building is very difficult just because of the upgrades that would be required from an HVAC perspective and to make it ADA compliant.”

The layout of the building as well as its shell also present development challenges, Reeve said.

“It’s designed to be a church. It’s not necessarily designed to be something other than that,” Reeve said. “The conclusion that we have come to is that it is not financially feasible to restore the church to a condition that it could be occupied by a new user.”

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At a meeting last month, Reeve and others introduced the proposed plans for the property, which include the construction of 50 new apartment units as well as ground-floor retail totaling 3,000 square feet. Both St. Luke’s and the neighboring Green Line building, which ironically houses the Old Brooklyn Historical Society, would be demolished.

Reeve identified the NRP Group as the lead developer on the project and has repeatedly tried to assure the neighborhood that the new development if built, would reflect and pay homage to St. Luke’s. The project would partially be financed through low-income housing tax credits.

“It was really important to us in the OBCDC to really be a partner in this deal,” Reeve said. “With NRP Group, that partnership allows us to have a seat at the table to ensure that step finished product here meets exactly the type of architecture and design that we want in Old Brooklyn.

Young believes the OBCDC is moving ahead too quickly with the proposal and have not examined every possible option.

“We know there is a developer out there; we’ve talked to him. He said this project is minor compared to other projects before,” Young said. “Let’s get those people to the table, let’s get them here, let’s get them funded. Just knocking it down and starting over, that’s not the way you re-build Main Street. You rebuild it with creativity, knowledge, getting the experts to the table, that’s how you do it.”

Young and others have even offered to help offset any holding costs like insurance and taxes temporarily while the OBCDC and city officials put a pause on the project. Young plans on re-iterating that commitment at a community meeting scheduled for Wednesday evening at Estabrook Recreation Center.

“To think that Main Street could be re-built by having that kind of apartment building, I totally disagree with that. Old Brooklynites, we deserve better than that,” Young said.