New life planned for historic Decatur First United Methodist chapel
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By Cathi Harris, contributor
Decatur, GA — The historic 1899 stone chapel at the corner of Sycamore Street and Commerce Drive in downtown Decatur may soon see a new life as a community theater, small concert venue and training and educational event space.
A partnership that includes Decatur attorneys Kyle Williams and Eric Teusink are under contract to purchase the chapel and an adjacent educational building from Decatur First United Methodist Church. They plan to renovate the church’s former preschool building to serve as office space and the chapel as a venue for use by other community organizations.
As a first step, they plan to ask the city to agree to rezone the property from its existing R-60 zoning designation to C-2, Commercial offices and Educational, Training and Civic Facilities.
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The rezoning is necessary to support its planned future use as well as make the existing site consistent with the surrounding commercial parcels.
“This building is surrounded by other commercially zoned property and this [rezoning] would make it consistent with both its current land use and the proposed future use,” architect Andrew Rutledge, representing the application, told the Downtown Decatur Development Authority (DDA) board on Friday. “Everything to the west of Commerce is zoned C-2, so this proposed zoning and land use category would match what is adjacent.”
No one is sure exactly why the parcels at 312 and 318 Sycamore are zoned R-60, which is usually reserved for low-density, single-family residential districts. The chapel, built in 1899 and the education building, built around 1911, are never known to have been used for a residential purpose. The remaining Decatur First United Methodist property is zoned I-Institutional.
Rutledge, in his presentation to the board, noted that church properties are sometimes zoned R-60, even though they may not be used as residential property.
The typical zoning for churches is either Institutional or R-60 Single-Family Residential, Decatur Planning and Economic Development Director Angela Threadgill told Decaturish after the meeting.
Because the parcel is located in downtown Decatur as well as the Old Decatur Historic District, the owners must seek the recommendation of the DDA, as well as the Decatur Historic Preservation Commission and the Decatur Planning Commision before a rezoning ordinance can be considered by the Decatur City Commission.
“I think this is a great example of what we should be doing, which is supporting the adaptive re-use of a historic building for a use that is needed in this area of downtown,” DDA Board Chair Chis Sciarrone said during the discussion.
Board member Lisa Turner also noted that the owners were not requesting any variances of exceptions to city requirements other than the rezoning, and the project will add commercial space back to the city’s property tax digest.
The board voted unanimously to recommend approval of the rezoning.
In a separate measure, the board also voted unanimously to issue a letter in support of the development to the Georgia Cities Foundation (GCF). The CGF is a non-profit organization that provides loans and other support for downtown revitalization programs in Georgia.
The partnership that plans to redevelop the former church property wants to apply for a loan from the state to renovate the buildings. In most situations involving commercial properties in the downtown district, the DDA would serve as the conduit for these loan funds—issuing the loan documents and disbursing the funds, Threadgill explained.
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Because the partnership includes Kyle Williams and Williams serves as the general counsel for the DDA, the DDA serving in that role would post a conflict of interest.
“Due to that conflict of interest, we want to make sure not to have that conflict,” Threadgill said. “GCF has made an exception for this loan application, which they can do in these cases, and have done in other situations. And that loan application and those loan documents will be between GCF and the partnership. The DDA is removed from that transaction and that conflict is eliminated. But, the GCF still wants to hear from the DDA, and they want to make sure that you feel that this project is desirable for our downtown.”
The DDA’s letter of support does not bind them in any way and they will have no obligations to the project, Threadgill noted.
The proposed rezoning still must be considered by the Planning Commission and Historic Preservation Commission before the Decatur City Commission will make the final decision.
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