Neighbors are divided as proposed development includes demolition of historic church

CLEVELAND — A dilapidated but historic former church with pre-Civil War roots is facing 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 apartments and thousands of square feet of retail space, has met with outpouring 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 an unceremonious end to the church which was established in 1839. The church was actually rebuilt in 1903 and has endeared itself to generations of Cleveland with its humble red brick exterior.

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John Young, whose family pest control business has operated in Old Brooklyn since 1908, has been one of the strongest proponents of saving St. Luke’s or, at the very least, setting up a break before the demolition of the church.

“When you talk about knocking out another tooth on Main Street, that’s where I really have a problem with that,” Young said. “You just tear it down and start over, that’s not how you rebuild Main Street. You rebuild it with creativity, knowledge, by bringing experts together around the table. That’s how you do it.”

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

“The revitalization … of this corner is our highest goal as we explored the various redevelopment options,” said Lucas Reeve, acting executive director of the Old Brooklyn Community Development Corp. “How can we help this corner become the main and main downtown of Old Brooklyn in the Brighton Corridor?”

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With recent renovations and investments in the area, including the recently opened Brighton Park across from the Metroparks Zoo, the St. Luke site presents a tremendous opportunity to continue the growth of old Brooklyn. What to do with it depends on who you ask.

Church property was in the possession of the county land bank until it was transferred to the OBCDC earlier this month, according to county property records. The local community development corporation, however, has been intimately involved with the property in recent years, including marketing the former church property to interested developers.

“No buyers came forward. I think a lot of people have been through this and just couldn’t figure out the cost to make the building a beneficial reuse,” Reeve said. “It was described to us as being in very poor condition. Aside from the envelope itself, imagining some kind of reuse of the building is very difficult simply because of the upgrades that would be required from an HVAC standpoint 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 anything other than that,” Reeve said. “The conclusion we have reached is that it is not financially possible to restore the church to such a condition that it could be occupied by a new user.”

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

Reeve identified the NRP Group as the main developer of the project and repeatedly tried to assure the neighborhood that the new development, if built, would reflect and pay homage to St. Luke’s. The project would be partly financed by tax credits for social housing.

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

Young thinks the OBCDC is moving too quickly with the proposal and hasn’t considered all possible options.

“We know there’s a developer there; we spoke to him. He said this project is minor compared to other projects before,” Young said. “Let’s bring these people to the table, let’s bring them here, let’s get them funded. Just tear it down and start over, that’s not how you rebuild Main Street. You rebuild it with creativity, knowledge, bringing the experts around the table, that’s how you do it.

Young and others have even offered to help temporarily offset detention costs such as insurance and taxes while OBCDC and city officials put the project on hold. Young plans to reiterate that pledge at a community meeting scheduled for Wednesday night at the Estabrook Recreation Center.

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

Jerry B. Hatch