A Tale of Two Churches

By Brent Woodcox

From WTVD...

We've already covered on this site what is going on with Hayes Barton Baptist Church and Save Six. The short version is that Hayes Barton has decided they need a new parking lot so they plan to bulldoze six historic homes that they own adjacent to the church building on White Oak Road.

Now comes this story from Joel Brown at ABC 11.

Raleigh’s downtown revitalization is quickly expanding eastward - transforming some communities from low-income to high-end. There was already concern about many long-time residents being forced out. But there was shock this week as word spread that a decades-old church in southeast Raleigh was now up for sale. ...

For eight decades, the church has been a beacon on the corner of East Davie and Martin streets. ...

But these blocks of southeast Raleigh are quickly becoming more identified as downtown Raleigh. And that comes with downtown prices

Those new townhomes recently built down the street start at over half million dollars. Rent at the newly built luxury apartments goes for between $1,000 to $2,000 a month. This low-income neighborhood is going high end. And Smith Temple can’t afford to grow here.

”The price has gone up,” Jeffers explained. “So for the church to try to expand their parking lot or do anything different around where they are- it’s just too expensive.” ...

Southeast Raleigh advocate, Diana Powell says she and many in this side of the city reacted in shock when they heard the news of Smith Temple’s impending sale.

”Are you kidding me?!” she said, describing her initial reaction.

The church is asking $4.3 million for the property which has increased in value as the neighborhood quickly gentrifies.

Powell has been sounding the alarms about the unintended consequences of downtown’s renaissance: Lost heritage in a once proud African-American enclave where many black Raleighites owned businesses and worshipped in churches like Smith Temple that dot many of these corners.

”A lot of that property in southeast Raleigh is history,” Powell said. “That stuff was built on the backs of our black community, our black leaders.

”You can ride through downtown, you can ride over southeast, there’s so much construction going on people are being displaced. This gentrification has really gotten out of hand.”

But Smith Temple church leaders made clear, the church is not being forced to move.

In fact, the selling price may just ensure the church’s future— albeit somewhere else.
— Joel Brown - ABC 11

One church wants to knock down houses to build a parking lot so it doesn't have to move in the future. The other is choosing to move because the land around it is becoming so expensive that selling the property could guarantee the church's future.

Raleigh is changing. And no where is that change being felt more acutely and more rapidly than in the neighborhoods in and around downtown.

There is a nuanced conversation to be had about gentrification and how that relates to the concepts of revitalization and displacement.

My question is: Are any of these conversations being had by the Raleigh City Council?

If so, where? Because I have rarely, if ever, even heard the word "gentrification" spoken at the council table.

Now I'm not suggesting that we can build a wall around Southeast Raleigh that will keep our market forces nor am I suggesting that any new housing that is built there can only have negative consequences.

What I am suggesting is that we can have some discussion about what is happening in the area and how people in those neighborhoods are being affected by it.

Because the reality is that people are facing skyrocketing property tax bills that for some are far outpacing any growth in income they might be seeing. Some are facing property speculators who are trying to swindle them out of their property for less than what the market would dictate. Some are facing eviction as rents near downtown go through the roof and, seemingly, there is no plan to replace this formally affordable, market-rate housing with any new units.

There seem to be two development policies in the city of Raleigh when it comes to NIMBY attitudes and they are dictated by geography.

Southeast Raleigh: Development anarchy. 

Everywhere else in the city: No to everything.

These two churches are less than 3 miles away from each other.

So why is there so much discussion around a plan to deal with one situation and not the other?

What will happen if Smith Temple leaves the community? What services were they providing to people who live in nearby neighborhoods? What plan does the city have to replace those services for the community? If prices continue to rise in the area, what plan does the city have to replace the affordable units that are being lost? As land prices continue to skyrocket, is there any plan to address the underlying zoning and land use in the neighborhood to support smaller lots that could be more affordable so that people don't get forced out of what may be the only neighborhood they have known for their entire lives?

It seems like the Raleigh City Council should be able to walk and chew gum at the same time. We can care about saving six historic houses in Five Points from demolition and also care about what the effects are of rapid change on Smith Temple and the neighborhoods in Southeast Raleigh that surround it.

We need a plan for Raleigh as it grows. That plan can't just be to say no to everything. It should include the values that our city holds dear. It should lead to greater opportunity, access to affordable housing and a more inclusive city.

Right now, we seem to have a blind spot that causes us to squander the opportunity to progress towards those goals because we refuse to take on the tough conversations that are required to get there.

Brent Woodcox