40 Acres and a church

Oak Park’s ‘historic commercial corridor’ reluctantly makes room for ‘Sweet Daddy’ Grace’s house of worship

This building soon will be decorated with crosses and angels as The United House of Prayer for All Peoples moves into the historic business district of Oak Park.

This building soon will be decorated with crosses and angels as The United House of Prayer for All Peoples moves into the historic business district of Oak Park.

Photo By Larry Dalton

As Oak Park has gentrified in the last few years, an undercurrent of tension has developed between homeowners who want to live in a vibrant historic neighborhood right next-door to the city center, and the organizations that have settled into Oak Park to provide services to a historically depressed community. Many of agencies, nonprofits and faith-based organizations don’t pay taxes, don’t provide jobs to local people and don’t meet the desires of the newly affluent residents in the area, who would like to see historic storefronts filled with boutiques, upscale restaurants and other projects similar to Kevin Johnson’s 40 Acres project.

The roots of this tension go back years. To help shape the future development of Oak Park, residents came together in the 1990s and proposed a design plan that would both create and nourish small commercial districts in blighted areas. One of these areas, a nine-block square that centered on the intersection of 35th Street and Broadway, would make use of pretty brick storefronts and residential properties that used to form the neighborhood’s “historic commercial corridor.”

The original plan tried to ban, or at least discourage, certain businesses or organizations from locating in that nine-block square. “Prohibited uses” included bars, used-car lots, porn shops and storage facilities. The less offensive “discouraged uses” included social services, card rooms, drive-through restaurants and “places of worship.”

Churches originally were prohibited, but when the city incorporated the neighbors’ preferences into city policy, they moved churches to the “discouraged” category to avoid violating the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000, which protects religious institutions from discrimination in zoning laws. But activists were told not to worry, remembers resident Tom Sumpter. A web of required permits and wavers would be enough to halt new churches.

That may have been the city’s plan, but, as Sumpter said, “the city reversed itself” when the first test of the new policy came this winter.

The test came in the form of a request for a special permit that would allow a nationally known church to open a new chapter in the commercial corridor. Elder Darrell Perry of The United House of Prayer for All Peoples envisioned transforming a small salmon-colored building—the previous offices of the Sacramento Observer newspaper—into a church big enough for a congregation of 46, the most allowed by law. When the congregation inevitably grew bigger, Perry predicted by phone, he would open new locations. Ultimately, he’d like to lead three churches in Sacramento. But currently, he leads a small congregation that meets in members’ homes.

Neighbors like Sumpter expected the city to welcome Perry to Oak Park but to turn down the church’s special permit to open in the historic building right off Broadway at 3540 Fourth Avenue. The city’s planning commission had denied the project. But the city council, with the exception of Councilwoman Lauren Hammond, found that the church had rights it couldn’t deny.

Perry said that his church bought the building in Oak Park because “the atmosphere of the neighborhood is beautiful.” On foot, he said, one can walk to get a cup of coffee or a haircut. “It’s just a beautiful area.”

Perry also said the church hadn’t realized when it bought the old Observer building that it was encroaching on an area reserved for commercial use. “We want to support our community officials,” said Perry, who claimed that had the church known about the commercial district earlier, it might have located elsewhere.

The project, which called for the combining of two parcels so that the church would have a small parking lot of five spaces, first came before the city’s planning commission in the summer of 2004. The planning commission opposed the project on the grounds that the church wouldn’t contribute to the economic vitality of the area and that it likely would outgrow the available parking at the site.

To appeal the commission’s decision, the church got a lawyer. During a December meeting viewable on the city council’s Web site, attorney Sabrina Teller argued that Perry’s congregation went to great lengths to be good neighbors. They signed an agreement to use a neighboring business’s parking lot for overflow, and they agreed to pick up most of their members with the church’s van service. They even agreed not to perform the church’s usual outreach activities of providing meals and other services to homeless people in the neighborhood.

City staff found that, even without these concessions, the church met the legal requirements for a special permit to open in its chosen location. Staff member Heather Forest told the city council that the church would not be a public nuisance, that it had enough parking to meet the legal requirements and that it would constitute “sound land use.”

Yet, Oak Park activists felt one more church would be overkill. In the immediate area, said Oak Park Neighborhood Association President Nate Solov, there are approximately 20 other churches. In the whole redevelopment area, there are about 100. Fellow activist Hazel Fielding worried that putting a church in the new commercial district would set up a precedent leading to future exceptions.

During the conversation between city-council members, Hammond said that she understood that residents opposed the project because the church wouldn’t add “economic vitality,” but that wasn’t her main concern. She claimed there were approximately 150 “large assembly” institutions in the neighborhood and that there weren’t enough parking spaces to support them. “I didn’t say religious faciliites,” she emphasized, “but large assembly institutions.” Counting parking spaces up and down the street, she argued that another church was unsupportable. “I don’t believe this can be mitigated,” she added.

Throughout the hearing, Hammond argued against the project while wearing a large silver cross around her neck and maintaining that she supports religious institutions. In subsequent interviews with SN&R, she mentioned that the area had more than its share of social-service organizations. She also was concerned about a growing homeless population in the area that was subsisting on handouts but didn’t receive the mental-health support necessary to get off the streets.

During the meeting, as other council members voiced their support for the church’s project, Hammond realized she was the only one voting to oppose. When the council asked for a vote of approval, she abstained.

That was back in December. Currently, the building is hauntingly quiet. A big metal gate and reflective windows make it difficult to tell if anyone is inside. Nearby, there is new commercial development, but most of it—the Guild Theater, Underground Books, etc.—has been inspired by Kevin Johnson. “If anyone else came in and did what he’s done,” Solov said, “they’d be a hero, too.”

As evidence of revitalization, Solov mentioned that there’s a new pet store right next to the church’s building on Fourth Avenue, a plan for new lofts on the same block and a new printing shop. But residents are desperate for retail businesses that they can patronize; Solov hoped the city would lead other businesses to take a chance on the area the way Starbucks has.

Sumpter, who’s been watching the church building over the last few months, said it’s been very quiet since the city approved the project. “It’s like they don’t exist,” he said.

That’s likely because the interior of the space is still being renovated. The church has submitted drawings for a sanctuary that seats 46 and is fronted by a “shout ground” big enough for musicians. The building also will hold a social hall and a kitchen. Outside, angels will be mounted on the building’s facade. The national church is managing the renovation of the space, said Perry, who hopes his congregation will be holding nightly services as early as September.

If the space is quiet now, it won’t be once the renovation is complete. The House of Prayer for All Peoples was founded nearly a century ago by a charismatic leader named “Sweet Daddy” Grace, who brought the church a reputation for passionate, song-filled services.

As Hammond warned other city-council members, one passionate sermon has the potential to grow a small congregation into a couple of hundred people.