Big Bethel Church embarks on a four phase redevelopment mission

A $120 million redevelopment project slated to spruce up Sweet Auburn’s historic Big Bethel Church will soon commence with the help of Benoit Group and Russell New Urban, according to the Atlanta Business Chronicle.

The project will take over four years and will consist of four phases, which includes the rehabilitation of the 43-year-old Bethel Towers and the construction of an 850-space parking deck. A 1,000-bed student-housing complex with 30,000 square feet of retail will also be created, and church’s administrative office along Auburn Avenue will also be refurbished, according to the Atlanta Business Chronicle.

Georgia State Student Government Association Senator for the School of Policy Studies Aquillah Roberson said she is a strong supporter of preservation, revitalization and restoration.

“The new developments will essentially change the perception of the Auburn Avenue area and they’ll also be beneficial to Big Bethel, as these projects replicate the historical significance of black churches and the impact that they have on the communities they are located in,” Roberson said.

Phase One

The redevelopment of the church parking lot will be the first stage, according to Senior Pastor of Big Bethel John Foster. He said the current church parking lot is composed of gravel and reaches approximately two and a half acres.

“It has served its purpose well for about ten years,” Foster said.

He said the parking lot currently holds 300 parking spaces and is low developed.

“A third of the two and a half acres will be used to develop an 850-space parking deck. It will be multi-story, we’re currently considering five to six stories, enough to get the 850 spots,” Foster said.

Phase Two

Phase two consists of redeveloping Bethel Towers. Bethel Towers is a 180-unit apartment complex. It has been available to the public since 1971, according to the Atlanta Business Chronicle.

“It has served well, even today it serves well; it’s 97 percent occupied,” Foster said. “So it’s always almost full. There’s always a waiting list. The reality is, it’s approaching 50 years of age.”

Phase Three

During phase three, student housing will be constructed from the remaining area of the parking deck once it is developed, according to the Atlanta Business Chronicle.

“In the remaining space, we want to place commercial apartment-style dorms,” Foster said. “We’re calling them dorms because we’re clearly going to market it towards students, but if someone wants to come and pay whatever the rate is and they happen to not be a student, then they could surely move there.”

Phase Four

Retail stores will be added to the ground-level of the student dormitory complex and the surrounding property owned by Big Bethel in phase four, according to Atlanta Business Chronicle.

“From Big Bethel up until the Peacock Club, there’s a lot of spots that we just aren’t doing anything with,” Foster said. “One of our lots has become a condemned building. Another lot is just an open lot that we use about twice a year to have picnics with the youth.”

Foster said they want to develop areas that complement the Georgia State and Atlanta community.

Redeveloping the Downtown community

Big Bethel AME, previously known as Old Bethel and also the African Methodist Episcopal Tabernacle, was founded in 1847. It was the first predominantly African American congregation in the Metropolitan area.

Georgia State student Jeremy Leslie sees the pros and a cons of the development. He said a detractor is that the historic area won’t look quite the same afterwards.

“Big Bethel AME has maintained its general presence and appearance for far over a century, it’s apart of Sweet Auburn’s Historic District,” Leslie said.

Leslie, a devout Christian, said he is happy to see Big Bethel church stay the same.

“Attending my church weekly gives me a sense of tranquility throughout the week and I have a positive mood that coincides with it,” Leslie said. “Honestly, some of my fondest memories are at my church back home.”

“I believe that some are going to feel as if the community is entering the initial stages of being pushed out,” says Leslie.

Foster said the only thing he’s trying to push out is the crime. “We’re hoping that our redevelopments, combined with the redevelopments of others on Sweet Auburn, will move out some of the criminal activity.”

Pastor John Foster said the developer and church doesn’t plan on demolishing any of the  properties, according to SaportaReport.

Roberson said the project is profit maximizing to replace parts of historic sites and replace them with new developments.

Georgia State Spokeswoman Andrea Jones said she thinks the university’s recent and ongoing expansion efforts have prompted other local area development, such as Big Bethel’s revitalization projects.

“We are happy that Georgia State’s growth has led other developers to see the benefits of enhancing downtown Atlanta,” Jones said. “The student-housing complex will be privately funded; it is not a part of the university.”