Noe Valley Voice October 2006

Fed-Up Pastor Sells Church to Condo Developer

By Corrie M. Anders

A long and often prickly relationship between the Church at San Francisco and its Noe Valley neighbors appears to be coming to a righteous ending.

Owners of the royal-blue house of worship at the corner of Church and 28th streets are in contract to sell the building to a prominent Oakland-based builder, who wants to erect a mid-rise condominium development on the site.

"We have a deal," says Rev. Joesiah Bell, pastor of the non-denominational church, which last spring had launched efforts to establish a temporary sanctuary for homeless women. "We've decided to go where people want to see other people being helped."

Late last month, the developer, J. Branch Development Inc., submitted architectural plans to the city for a four-story, mixed-use complex. The proposal calls for three two-bedroom flats and three two-bedroom townhouses, ground-floor retail space, and a nine-space parking garage.

The condos would carry market-rate price tags. However, one of the six units would be sold to a working-class buyer at less than full price, according to James Branch, who heads the development firm. The reduced cost, which he says has run from 15 to 25 percent at his other developments, is a contribution the firm makes to the community.

"We typically provide a unit at less than market rate," says Branch. "We call it 'workforce housing,' and we find deserving candidates who would benefit from that lower price point."

Demise of an Icon

Demolition of the church would drop the final curtain on a building that started life as a one-screen temple to Hollywood. The theater opened in 1916 as the Searchlight, according to Cinema Treasures, a web site devoted to movie preservation. The theater, which showed German and Russian films in the 1930s and later on American movies, was also known as the Empress, the Lux, the De Lux, the Isis, the Princess, the Church, and the Rita. The Rita moniker eventually gave way to the Del Mar--until 1965 when the Holiness Temple in Christ purchased the building.

Neighbors first saw plans for the new condominiums, designed by the San Francisco architectural firm of Kotas-Pantaleoni, at a community meeting the developer sponsored Aug. 30 at St. Philip Church on Diamond Street.

Vicki Rosen, president of Upper Noe Neighbors, says it was "a very congenial meeting" and that she expects nearby residents and businesses to give their blessing to the proposal. "There's not a lot of opposition to replacing the church," says Rosen. "It doesn't have a warm place in many people's hearts."

The apparent lack of resistance in a part of town well known for protracted battles with developers is a tacit acknowledgement of the tension that has existed between the church and many in the local community.

Search for a New Pulpit

Bell says he doesn't know where his church will relocate. But he likened leaving Noe Valley to the Israelites escaping the hostile environment of biblical Egypt.

"It's the equivalent to being set free," he says. "I've been here for 10 years and I've just reached my wit's end. I've tried everything I could to be neighborly."

Bell first encountered neighborhood ire shortly after he took over as a social activist pastor and unveiled plans to establish a city homeless shelter. He backed down from the plan, but from time to time has operated food and clothing giveaways at the church, located at 1596 Church Street.

Over the years, Bell says the church has been the target of various forms of harassment--from complaints about sidewalk sales and uncovered garbage cans to graffiti-sprayed exterior walls to late-night phone calls that he describes as "racist." Bell is African American and the church congregation is racially diverse.

The decision to sell came after Bell began a $5 million fundraising drive to build the House of Sarah, a temporary refuge for women who would receive drug and alcohol counseling and life-skills training.

"We got so much adverse reaction from the community," he says. "I'm just sick and tired of it. This is just straight-up racism, and I don't feel like dealing with this kind of stupid stuff."