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Restoring a Church is Harder Than Building a City in China, Developer Finds

By Sam Cholke | May 20, 2015 5:45am

John Liu has discovered Chicago a very different pace for development than China while trying to revive Shiloh Baptist Church as townhomes. [DNAinfo/Sam Cholke]

KENWOOD — Developer John Liu is discovering that in some ways it’s easier to build an entire new city from scratch in China than it is to restore one church in Kenwood.

Liu has toiled for two years now on reviving Shiloh Baptist Church, 4840 S. Dorchester Ave., into 13 townhomes.

“I think I’ve made a very bad decision because it’s a lot of trouble,” Liu joked on Monday. “My life before was very peaceful.”

Peaceful for Liu is conjuring up a metropolis on 600 acres of vacant land outside of Beijing, China, as the head of Hyde Park Capital.

“My specialty is to take a big piece of land and develop a city,” Liu said.

Liu is now awaiting permits to start converting the church into 13 three-story townhomes around a central garden courtyard where the sanctuary once was.

The entire façade of the church will be restored and from the outside it will look much as it does now, except for a new driveway on the north side of the building leading to a parking garage in basement of the church.

On the inside, 13 townhomes will ring a central garden courtyard that will be opened up when the roof is redone.

Ken DeMuth, a senior associate with Pappageorge Haymes Partners, has created a layout that will maintain the arching sanctuary windows, which will flood the living areas of four of the townhomes with light.

Liu said the Tiffany stained glass is in bad shape, but could be restored and kept in place if a buyer in interested in keeping it.

The townhomes are expected to cost between $850,000 and $1.2 million and range from 2,800 to 4,200 square feet, according to Liu.

He said that once the permits and financing are in place, it should take 6-8 months to complete construction, the last step in a two-year project.

“In China, I could have gotten the whole thing done in eight months,” Liu said.

The church is Liu’s first project in Chicago and his first exposure to Chicago-style bureaucracy.

“I come from China, where money will get things done, but it is very corrupt,” Liu said. “Here it’s clean, but very slow."

Liu has been playing by Chicago’s rules. He’s gone through the arduous task of winning over neighbors — a social nicety that he said largely doesn’t exist in China — wooing the alderman and abiding by all of the dictates of the Kenwood Historic District.

Liu has lived in the United States for more than 30 years, traveling back and forth to China to work on development projects. He moved to Kenwood from New York City in 2013 when his wife took a job as a professor at the University of Chicago and started looking for a project to take on somewhere on the South Side.

He heard the former owner was trying to unload the church, which has stood vacant in Kenwood since the congregation left in 2002, and saw a fairly straightforward conversion to townhomes when he walked over from his house to look it over.

What he discovered after buying the church for $650,000 in early 2014 was that it was full of asbestos and lead paint, which delayed efforts to tear out the 1,000-seat sanctuary, stabilize the exterior walls and remove a five-year-old tree that was found growing out of a wall three-stories up.

A five-year-old tree was found growing three-stories up out of a wall after Liu bought the church.

The church was designed by Solon Spencer Beman, who was also the architect for the planned community of Pullman. It now sits dark and heavy behind six massive stone columns, which were Beman’s calling card for the churches he designed.

After some initial delays, Liu said the project is now ready to move forward and he already has considerable interest from buyers.

“I’m waiting to see if the community can support and promote the project,” Liu said. “Once we finish the project, the whole neighborhood will benefit.”

Liu said construction of 13 townhomes will take 6-8 months now that the church's interior has been gutted.

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