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MCC-SF Selling Church, Apartments

by Seth Hemmelgarn

Bay Area Reporter

Sunday January 4, 2015

Faced with a dilapidated building, Metropolitan Community Church of San Francisco, which for decades has been the spiritual home for many LGBTs in the Bay Area, plans to sell the 150 Eureka Street property and an adjacent four-unit apartment building in the Castro.

MCC-SF plans to relocate and share space with a church in the Polk Gulch area.

The Reverend Robert Shively, MCC-SF's senior pastor, said the 114-year-old church building is "simply worn out. It's beyond the maintenance stage. It's simply falling down, and we've had routine inspections of it, and the engineer's report said it's past its useful life."

The congregation is feeling "some well-earned nostalgia about the community in the Castro," Shively, who's gay, said. However, he said, "The community really understands our ability to do ministry has been hampered" by the building. "It has become such a burden."

Katharine Holland, the Realtor tasked with selling the properties, said they'll go on the market January 5 and offers will be taken January 21. The church building will be listed for about $2 million and the apartment building, at 138-140 Eureka Street, for approximately $1.5 million.

The MCC-SF congregation voted December 7 to sell its buildings and move in with First Congregational Church of San Francisco, at 1300 Polk Street, after several months of discussion, Shively said.

"We are looking at the first Sunday in February" as the moving date, he said. The church is considering starting its last service on Eureka Street that day and finishing the service on Polk Street.

Holland, who thinks the properties will sell quickly, noted the church's unusually large lot size.

"The standard lot in San Francisco is 25 by 100 [feet]," she said, "and this is 50 by 125."

The two-story, 5,550-square-foot facility is also "an interesting building in that it is considered a commercial space. There are no residents in there, but it is zoned RH2," Holland said, which means it's zoned for "residential-house, two family."

In response to emailed questions, Gina Simi, a spokeswoman for the planning department, said because of how it's zoned, the building could conceivably be turned into housing. A theater wouldn't be an option, since it's not zoned for commercial use. Permits would be required if a new owner wanted to demolish the site.

Shively said money from the buildings' sale would be used "to continue to be the church that we have always been, to act in the community, to offer services and programs that meet the needs of the people we serve" and to "expand our vision to the whole of San Francisco." He added, "We are looking at ways to use the money as an endowment for the future. There will be many choices we have along the way."

Strong Connections

MCC-SF has had strong connections with the community. In the 1980s, the church frequently hosted funerals for people who had died from AIDS-related complications. The congregation has also offered food for homeless people, and at one time a shelter.

Holland, a lesbian who was a member of the congregation for several years, choked up during a recent interview about the sale and said, "I'm just feeling a little emotional."

Despite her attachment to the site, though, she was blunt in her assessment of the structure.

"They've been limping along for a long time with that building," Holland said.

Several rooms in the upstairs portion of the building, which includes meeting space and offices, are unusable.

"When I'm up there, I'm afraid to walk around to the full extent of the rooms," she said.

The building's bland interiors also leave something to be desired.

"Usually, when you walk into a church, people go 'Wow,'" she said. "That's never been the case there." She said she looks forward to a time when people can be "comfortable and proud in their space."

Maureen Bogues, a lesbian who serves as lay co-leader of MCC-SF's board, supports selling the building.

"The building was worn out," Bogues said. "... It's really outlived its purpose, and we've loved it to death," she added with a laugh.

Eviction Potential

Of concern is the uncertainty for the residents living in the apartment building. Shively said "of course" the church is worried about the possible evictions of residents of the apartment building, which MCC-SF bought several years ago as an investment.

"We're worried, and we care for our neighbors very much," he said.

The church considered many options related to selling one or both buildings.

"We feel selling them both at the same time gives us the best opportunity for the future," Shively said.

Lawrence Chatfield, 48, a gay materials scientist and game designer, has lived in the apartment building for five and a half years.

In a Facebook exchange with the Bay Area Reporter , Chatfield, who pays $1,700 a month on his rent-controlled, one-bedroom apartment, said the move to sell his building was "unexpected."

"I figured a church wouldn't be selling the property, but then organized religion doesn't really surprise me anymore nowadays," he said. He's "clearly worried about being evicted, as it happens quite frequently" in San Francisco "in an effort to increase monthly rents."

The Ellis Act, a state law that allows landlords to evict tenants in order to get out of the rental business, "does provide some protection, but not enough if [money] is the new owner's main concern," Chatfield said.

Holland didn't know about the possibility of the residential building's tenants being evicted.

"We never know, really," she said. Most people "just want the steady income" of a rental property, but there are people, such as developers, who are "more aggressive," she said. "I haven't had any discussions with anybody about it right now."

Robert Collins, deputy director at the city's rent board, said Ellis Act evictions "do happen more often in smaller buildings." Transforming the building so that each of the tenants owns their own unit, for example, is "easier" when the building has four units than when it has 20.

First Congregational

Shively said the schedules for his church and First Congregational are "very compatible."

Congregations of both churches are small.

Average Sunday attendance at 150 Eureka has been about 53 people in the morning and 50 in the evening, which is roughly the same as figures from a year ago. Wednesday evening prayer services attract 15 to 20 people.

FCC-SF's average Sunday attendance is about 35.

The Reverend David Cowell, FCC-SF's designated interim pastor, said in interview before the B.A.R. spoke with Shively that he and others at his church are "having a very serious discussion" with MCC-SF about sharing space.

"Our congregation has been looking for partners in ministry to the community for a long time, and this is just something that seems to have worked out, the timing and the connection between the two congregations," Cowell, who's gay, said. "... We've just been so happy to find each other."

It's not clear how much MCC-SF will pay the other church in rent.

"We're still hammering out the details of the agreement," Cowell said.

Shively referred a question about rent to MCC-SF Executive Pastor Irene Laudeman, who didn't respond to an emailed question about the figure.

In a brief phone interview Laudeman refused to discuss other financial matters.

Asked about MCC-SF's budget, she said, "I'm not going to answer that. ... That is not public information."

In a recent interview with the B.A.R. , Supervisor Scott Wiener, whose District 8 includes the Castro, said, "I haven't spoken to MCC" about the prospective sales, "so would rather not comment in detail."

However, Wiener said, "We want to make sure those properties are put to good use."

He said the church building "always has been an important community gathering space. It would be a shame to lose that."

Matthew S. Bajko contributed to this report.

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