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Karate Studio or Condos? First Baptist Church Plans Discussed

On Tuesday, the ArdWood Civic Association met with martial arts instructors who have shown an interest in the First Baptist Church property.

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 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 . 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.

Tina Elsner May 04, 2012 at 01:42 PM
Where is the church located -- no address or cross streets provided in this article. Not everyone who reads this newsletter was born and raised in this area; some of us are new here and don't know where everything is. Providing links in the article is a poor substitute for good reporting.
Amanda Mahnke (Editor) May 04, 2012 at 08:35 PM
Hi Tina, I edited the article at noon today to add the cross streets. For future reference, Patch has a places directory, which includes location, contact information and hours of operation for community organizations, which is where the First Baptist Church link sends you if you click on it. But you're right, it should be in the article body also, so this change is reflected. Thanks for reading!
Bob June 24, 2012 at 04:53 AM
Thank God planning boards and the like didn't exist two hundred years ago or we wouldn't have built anything of any significance! The church will be vacant and deteriorate unless someone purchases and utilizes it, so please do us a favor and just get the hell out of the way.
cynthia roscioli June 27, 2012 at 04:04 AM
How about keeping a church there? Calvary Chapel of Philadelphia, a strong, non-denominational, Bible-based church that is growing and expanding while others are experiencing decline, offered several times within this past year to completely take over First Baptist Church of Ardmore (including bills and repairs, of course). They wanted to breathe new life into our church and, in my opinion, the entire community. CC Philly's offer, was never seriously taken because the goal was to sell the church, not to give it away and First Baptist was not familiar enough with Calvary Chapel. Their offer to discuss this idea is still on the table. I am a member of First Baptist Church of Ardmore, but have recently been on a search for a new place to worship. It's not easy to find a church that comes close. I was one of three who voted not to sell. I love First Baptist Church of Ardmore and my fellow members who have worked tirelessly to keep this church going over the years. First Baptist Church of Ardmore is the best little church with the biggest heart for God. Since it has to go, I'd like to see it become Calvary Chapel. It would be a perfect fit. For more about Calvary Chapel of Philadelphia, visit www.ccphilly.org.

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