On Tuesday night, martial arts instructors Alberto Robayo and David Kremin met with members of the ArdWood Civic Association about the instructors' interest in buying the First Baptist Church of Ardmore property, located at Athens Avenue and St. Paul's Road, and turning it into a martial arts studio.
Because the site is zoned residential and the upkeep on the property is so expensive, several civic association members expressed their doubts about the viability of the proposal after the meeting.
The church property, which is up for sale because its small congregation can no longer support it, is also the interest of another buyer, whose plans will go before the Zoning Hearing Board on May 17.
A "First Step" and Preliminary Plans
Kremin, a karate instructor, and Robayo, a jiu jitsu instructor, are business partners at a martial arts studio near the Bryn Mawr Film Institute. Because their current facility has such limited space, Kremin, the owner of Amkor Karate, and Robayo, owner of Main Line Gracie Jiu-Jitsu, cannot teach classes at the same time. First Baptist Church's size and location in the community attracted the pair to the building.
Kremin and Robayo met with the ArdWood Civic Association at their May 1 meeting to informally present their plans for the building as a "first step."
"We run separate schools, but we thought this would be an ideal locale," Kremin explained.
Kremin and Robayo said they would create three large classrooms out of the recreation room, main sanctuary and secondary sanctuary. Robayo said his wife, who is a yoga instructor, would be "very interested" in teaching classes out of the third space, but it could potentially also serve as some other kind of facility. Robayo and his family might also be interested in living in the parsonage.
While the basement is too small to host a martial arts competition there, Kremin said, he would eventually like to do his own belt testing there.
The pair's classes in Bryn Mawr typically run from 4 to 9:30 p.m. Monday through Friday and 9 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. on Saturdays. The possibility of renting out the church to other organizations in the area during the daytime hours would also be a possibility, Kremin said.
Kremin said on average, he sees about 50 students a day, and has 100 students total. Robayo has about 50 students, with about 16 in each class.
Concerns and Benefits
Neighbors expressed concerns over a number of issues with the plan.
Parking and traffic issues: Parking is already tight in the neighborhood on Sundays and Wednesday nights due to services at neighboring Household of Faith Deliverance Church. Plus, at the time when Kremin and Robayo's classes would be starting up, traffic would be especially congested.
"Around 4 p.m., the school buses start, and there's a school bus coming down this street every 45 minutes until 5:30," Regina Brown said.
Financial concerns: There's also a significant upkeep cost to the church, which has a flood-prone basement, and civic association members worried that the martial arts businesses would not be able to support it.
"We believe that between the two of us, we can support the property," Robayo said.
Setting a precedent: "I respect what you're going to do," a neighboring homeowner named John said, "But if you apply for a commercial use—I'm worried than any house that goes up for sale could be turned into a doctors office, a vet's office."
However, there are also a number of benefits to a martial arts studio moving into the building, Robayo said.
"A lot of what has been said is negative, but there would also be many benefits ... The whole community would have access to the building, and it provides more activities for kids in the community," Robayo said.
Other Interested Buyers
Robayo and Kremin are not the first to express interest in the property.
Another potential buyer, Wally Smerconish of Main Street Abstract Co. in Warrington, presented his plans to the civic association in March. Smerconish would convert the church and its parsonage into condominiums.
Of concern to several civic association members, however, is that Smerconish does not seem inclined toward placing the building on Lower Merion's Historic Registry, which would limit certain changes to the exterior of the building.
"Who's going to preserve the beauty of the building?" Brown said after the meeting.
According to Main Line Media News, Smerconish has presented himself as the contract purchaser of the church. His plans will come before the zoning hearing board on May 17.
The next ArdWood Civic Association meeting is tentatively scheduled for the evening of Tuesday, July 10.
[Edited 5/3/12 at 11:15 p.m., to correct name of neighboring homeowner John, and Regina Brown's statement about school buses; edited 5/4/12 at 12 p.m. to add First Baptist Church address.]
What do you want to see in the First Baptist Church building? Tell us in the comments.