Developer Wally Smerconish has officially bought and is considering "all options" for what to do with the space, including renting out the space, selling the church or demolishing it.
First Baptist Church, located at St. Pauls Road and E Athens Avenue in Ardmore, went on the market last July because its congregation—about a dozen members in all—could no longer support it.
In spring, Smerconish presented plans to the Lower Merion Zoning Hearing Board with hopes of converting the church . His plans were , because multi-family dwellings are not permitted under the site's R-4 zoning, and the board found that Smerconish had failed to adequately show that the site could not be developed as is.
Smerconish for the church in July, simultaneously appealing the board's decision in court.
Up until a few weeks ago, Smerconish was the contract buyer of the site. In early August, however, the First Baptist Church congregation officially sold the church to the developer. According to Smerconish, the church held its final service about two weeks ago. Church representatives have been unavailable for comment.
"I do own the church and the fate of it is uncertain," Smerconish said in an interview Monday.
Smerconish said he is "exhausting all his options" for what to do with the space.
The developer said he's open to the idea of selling the church to someone who would use it as a single-family home. Another idea is a timeshare, in which multiple congregations could use the building at scheduled times on Sunday and throughout the week, along with something like a daycare running Monday through Friday, Smerconish said.
Demolition of the 1920s greystone building is another option. Smerconish said he has an offer from a builder who wants to erect two homes on the site.
Smerconish said, though, that he would rather keep the church standing. For one, a large majority of neighbors would like to see the building stay. Plus, "the salvage value of the church is zero—there's no market for the stone," Smerconish said.
It's a difficult predicament, especially in an age when many churches, not just those in Lower Merion, are closing.
Of course, whether Smerconish should have known what he was getting himself into, coming to the township with a plan that required multi-family dwellings for a space that prohibits them.
"I do a lot of due diligence," Smerconish said in response to neighbors' criticisms. "But frankly, I just assumed, perhaps naively, that the Zoning Hearing Board would grant the reuse."
Multi-family dwellings may at some point become permissible for churches like First Baptist, .
When asked if he would consider waiting for the conversion to pass before acting, Smerconish gave a simple "No."
"We’re talking about a township that hasn’t updated its Comprehensive Plan since the 70s," Smerconish elaborated, when asked. "I think it would not be practical to wait until an uncertain date [to act]. I’m a business person; ... I’ve gone out of my way to save that church; but at some point that won’t be practical."
Smerconish has been making efforts to seek options besides demolition, including listing the church on Craigslist for sale or lease.
"[I'd consider] everything from a food bank to a workshare to other smaller congregations: there's still opportunity for someone to buy the church and live in it, too," Smerconish said. "I want to resolve this in the community's interest and in my interest."
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