Grand Rapids

Plan would replace church with townhomes

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — A historic Grand Rapids church has to leave its northeast neighborhood location because its current building is too big for its congregation.

For more than 30 years, Wealthy Park Baptist Church has been on the 2200 block of Michigan Street. But with less than 100 members in a church that seats 1,200, something had to change.

The church had its beginnings on Wealthy Street at Eastern Avenue in the 1870s. It opened the building that stands there now in 1909.

The church became a mainstay of Baptist fundamentalism, with sermons broadcast on a radio show every week. It was also the flagship church of the General Association of Regular Baptist Churches. Cornerstone University had its origins in an evening Bible class in the church basement.

At its peak, the congregation had more than 1,200 members. After toying with the idea for more than a decade, the church moved to an 18-acre plot on Michigan Street in the late 1980s, building on to a former elementary school at a cost of $2.5 million. When it was done, the church was 40,000 square feet.  

“We have a history here in this city of being a really a Baptist megachurch in its day. We’re in different part of the life cycle and we’re looking to start that life cycle again and in order to do that we have to get out from under this facility," said William Swem, pastor at Wealthy Park. “Our ministry has suffered because we have to spend so much time, effort and money in just keeping this facility going.”

After trying to sell to other churches, schools and the like, the costs to renovate the deteriorating building were too steep.

“The building has no value to anybody so we had to sell it as a property," Swem said. “Churches are closing their doors and leaving behind empty buildings. We didn’t want that to happen. We didn’t want an empty building, an unmowed lawn and all of that out here for the neighborhood.”

Orion Real Estate Solutions has a plan for the site. It has already gotten preliminary approval from the city for an 88-unit townhouse development that will start as rentals and then convert to owner-occupied, according to the company.

“Compared to what could go here, I think it’s a beautiful plan," Swem said.

But neighbors appear divided.

“Every neighborhood should have its green space. That’s ours, that’s the only one we have," said Francis Neville, who says she is the acting vice president of the neighborhood association.

She said she still lives in the home she grew up in.

She argued the development could also negatively affect the quiet nature of the neighborhood, pointing to traffic. She was also worried about water runoff and drainage causing damage to the wetlands in the area. She said if flooding becomes a problem, deciding who will pay to fix it could become an issue.

“So possible litigation somewhere down the road if this goes through," Neville said.

But many neighbors are on board with the development.

“We’re anxious to have people who live in-house that are comparable in size and price, so the neighborhood continues to look the same," said neighbor Carol Greenburg, who has lived in the neighborhood for more than 30 years.

She said it could have been an abandoned property or a high-density project.

“I’m very excited to meet new people, I’ve never met any people in this neighborhood I haven’t liked a whole lot, that haven’t become good friends," she said.

There are still many phases before the project is finalized, including approval from the state on a plan to deal with the wetlands. Still, the vice president of Orion said the company hopes to have all 88 units available this year.


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