LOGAN SQUARE — A plan to tear down part of the 106-year-old Grace Church of Logan Square and build a five-story apartment building on the site sparked an emotional debate between church-goers and preservationists, who are divided on the proposal.
Church leaders presented their proposal, which is in its very early stages, to more than 100 residents in the church's sanctuary, 3325 W. Wrightwood Ave., Tuesday evening. The church hopes to eventually secure a zoning change to allow construction of the development — a plan that has been in the works for about two years.
The goal of the proposal, they argue, is to save the church, which is suffering from $1.5 million in deferred maintenance and a shrinking congregation over the course of many years.
"If we don't figure something out, this church will cease to exist on this corner," Rev. Mark Schol, the pastor of the church, told the crowd.
But preservationists argue the structure is an irreplaceable fixture in the community, which shouldn't be replaced — even partially — with a new apartment building. Tearing down part of the building now, they say, could make it easier to tear down the whole thing down the road.
An online petition circulated by Logan Square Preservation has gained more than 200 signatures from residents who oppose the proposal.
Throughout the meeting, which lasted nearly two hours, at least 30 minutes longer than anticipated, due to the amount of public comment, several members of the church shed tears or got choked up as they addressed the crowd.
"I have faced so many challenges and I don't know where I would honestly be — as a new mother — if it wasn't for this congregation," said church member Lauren Phillips, whose voice quivered as she spoke.
"I understand there are many of you who have walked by these doors for many years, but you have not been here until today. And understand: We are not demolishing. We are not breaking down these walls. What we're doing is coming up with a plan so we can sustain and grow our membership."
Colin Taylor, a member of the church for five years, remarked, "The one asset we have as a poor old church is that we happen to have some land."
The current plans, which haven't been finalized, include tearing down the building that currently houses the education wing built as an addition in 1925 and erecting an apartment building — possibly five stories — in its place. In total, the redeveloped church could offer up to 20 new apartments, including new housing for the pastor. The church would reserve 20 percent of the apartments as affordable.
The meeting, moderated by Ald. Carlos Ramirez-Rosa (35th), was held to gather community feedback to incorporate into a Request For Qualifications, a document the church is gearing up to submit in order to find a developer to partner with. The developer would be responsible for all of the building costs.
It's unwelcome news to neighbors like Bruce Anderson, a member of Logan Square Preservation.
"Here we have a developer coming in and saying I can build this big dense building and make a lot of money and create this revenue stream, but it's OK for the community because I'm going to put 20 percent affordable housing set aside," Anderson said.
"But doesn't that mean that 80 percent is going to be luxury apartments for $2,000 a month? I would ask this question of all you: Doesn't this sound just like the 1st Ward?"
Other neighbors urged the church to consider hosting a daycare or another business to make money before resorting to redevelopment.
"I think you have a beautiful church here, but I am squarely on the side of people who oppose the zoning change as a solution to your problems," said Bill Ejzak, who has lived in the neighborhood since 2005.
"Zoning is one critical element of maintaining the entire neighborhood. I think whatever solution there is, it must be within the existing zoning confines."
There were other concerns, including how the church would collect taxes on the apartment building along with the church, and why the proposal was so broad. Addressing the former, church leaders said they would create a "firewall" between the two properties and make sure taxes are paid separately. To the latter point, leaders said it was by design.
"We've consciously decided to have this plan that isn't fully formed because we want you to help us with the details," said church member Antoinette Kavanaugh.
The congregation constructed the current building in 1910. The church added classrooms, a gymnasium and a meeting area in 1925.
During the white flight of the 1950s and '60s the church lost a large part of its members as the neighborhood's demographics shifted heavily toward a Latino population.
When Schol took over in 2012 there were just nine people in the pews during his first Sunday service.
Since then the church has been working on outreach efforts and hosting art groups, yoga and other non-church functions inside the building.
Attendance in recent years has "skyrocketed," Schol said, with an average of 50 to 60 people every Sunday.
Schol said the redevelopment project would "allow the church to continue to be in Logan Square for another 100 years."
Ramirez-Rosa did not offer his opinion on the proposal, saying instead that he would like to gather more community feedback before making a decision.