For 18 years, the Reverend Charles Harper has been pastor of Paradise Baptist Church, the largest congregation in Grove Park. Harper, 69 years old and a lifelong Atlantan, has seen the area swing from prosperity to blighted abandonment. But these days, the church’s location on Donald Lee Hollowell Parkway feels like a front-row seat to explosive gentrification, with the BeltLine, Microsoft’s future campus, the sprawling Westside Park, and now $800,000-plus new townhomes nearby. Harper doesn’t necessarily perceive the sea change as negative—at least not for property owners who play their cards right. As a seasoned real estate agent, and one of the city’s foremost authorities on selling churches, the pastor knows his stately brick sanctuary and surrounding property could fetch up to $12 million.
Like other congregation leaders, Harper faces both opportunities and dilemmas. It’s a situation weighed by churches across the city in a historically hot housing market, where tradition is butting heads with the temptation of cashing out and moving on. Harper’s 49,000-square-foot church needs repairs to the tune of $4 million. Congregations in cities across the nation are dwindling, as church attendance rates fall to all-time lows and residents—especially in Atlanta’s lower-income neighborhoods—have either been forced by escalating costs to relocate or have sold homes to investors, meaning fewer members feeding coffers. Covid-19 shutdowns saved lives, but they also made parishioners comfortable watching church on TV or online at home, rendering cavernous sanctuaries less necessary. Meanwhile, developers’ appetites for church land is more ravenous than Harper has seen in more than 40 years of selling real estate, and those all-cash, no-questions-asked offers can be tough to turn down.
“It’s a struggle, because a lot of people don’t want to go,” says Harper. “They feel the church is the anchor of the community.”
Big-ticket Atlanta churches being repurposed or bulldozed for bigger-ticket development is nothing new. Think of the Tabernacle downtown (now a rollicking music venue), Buckhead’s landmark Second Church of Christ, Scientist (replaced with a 35-story luxury apartment tower), or Friendship and Mount Vernon Baptist churches (both razed, after handsome payouts, for Mercedes-Benz Stadium). The more recent phenomenon, as intown housing prices and BeltLine fervor have reached new heights, is developers’ focus on smaller if not tiny properties, many in disrepair or unoccupied. Tracking the scope of the trend can be difficult, says Karen Hatcher, president of the Atlanta Realtors Association—churches can fall under several zoning codes, and some deals happen off-market. She advises congregations to ensure they’re getting fair market value before uprooting. The Reverend Harper’s colleague Rick Arzet, a church specialist with Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices Georgia Properties, says “developers are offering people a fortune” these days, enough that some congregations “will sell whether they can find a place to go or not.”
Harper has sold about a dozen intown churches from West End and Pittsburgh to the fringes of Oakland Cemetery—all of them to developers, almost all of the congregations Black. Each congregation was able to stay intact, Harper says, often in better, larger facilities in the suburbs, with a stockpile of dough in the bank for programs and ministry. “Ninety percent of the time, it’s been a debt-free to debt-free transaction,” says Harper. “These have been some life-changing experiences.” (Selling off long-held property might not be sinful or even taboo, but it doesn’t appear to be a source of pride, either: No smaller church that had sold church property and moved on responded to interview requests for this story.)
The Memorial Drive corridor has emerged as an epicenter for church redevelopment. Within about a dozen blocks in Kirkwood, for instance, five sanctuaries have been razed since 2019 or are in the process of being demolished, with more than a hundred townhomes and other infill housing replacing them. Closer to the BeltLine’s popular Eastside Trail in Reynoldstown, Harper is under contract on another church priced at $1.2 million for less than a half-acre. Baptist churches make especially good real estate: Unlike those with ecclesiastical hierarchies, partnerships with large brokerage firms, or strict protocol for divesting properties, Baptist congregations are autonomous and free to sell as they see fit, Harper says. With all church property in Georgia being tax-exempt, there’s often no incentive to rush a sale, even when abandoned churches are starting to fall apart.
Developer Tim White of the Opes Group snatched up one such empty church on Memorial Drive (price for that one acre: undisclosed), which his company is replacing with five modern-style houses, selling from the $900,000s. He’s managed projects across the U.S., from St. Petersburg to Phoenix and Minneapolis. Across the street is a lot where another church was also cleared for houses. “I can’t say I’ve seen this [trend] in other markets,” says White.
One of the more high-profile church conversions in recent memory was Druid Hills United Methodist Church’s metamorphosis from a 1920s Greek Revival–style sanctuary to an amenity-rich condo complex, steeple intact, with prices starting at $640,000. Brian Davison, a managing partner with developer Minerva, says that process went so well his company has worked with a Tucker church to develop its baseball fields into housing, with two more church properties under contract.
The Reverend Andy Woodworth joined the Druid Hills congregation just after its move to a more multifunctional facility, Neighborhood Church in Candler Park, that sale proceeds fully renovated. Woodworth looks back fondly on the process of bidding the old sanctuary adieu, even though it would no longer be used to carry on God’s work. With one regret: Knowing what they know now about where Atlanta’s housing market has gone, Woodworth wishes their former church would have worked a guaranteed affordable housing component into the deal. “Of course,” says the Neighborhood Church copastor, “hindsight is 20/20.”
This article appears in our August 2022 issue.