A local small-scale real estate investor has bold plans for the Trinity United Methodist Church building at 306 W. Wisconsin Ave., a few blocks from bustling Downtown DeLand.
The concept: Turn the first floor of the historic building into a community marketplace for vendors and artists, and convert upstairs space into 13 apartments. The exterior of the church would remain relatively unchanged, and the grand sanctuary would become a place for community assembly.
Chris Levings and his wife, Jessica, who is a real estate agent with Kemp Realty Group, are under contract to buy the 1.3-acre property for $1 million. A closing date in August is designed to give the church time to move to West Plymouth Avenue, where a new building is planned on vacant land the church bought several years ago.
“This building is marvelous. It’s really, really big, but it’s not set up for the way we need it,” Trinity United Methodist Pastor Todd Bardin said.
The Levingses are in their due-diligence period, where they can make the decision about whether they want to follow through, but Chris Levings said it’s “full steam ahead.”
They have had preliminary meetings with city development officials about their concept.
The couple were encouraged by the response they got at a neighborhood meeting Dec. 16, where they introduced what they call NorthWest Square to people who live nearby.
“There was an overwhelming positive response from the community,” Chris Levings said. “People seemed really excited about the idea of having something that expands that northwest quadrant of Downtown.”
Trinity United Methodist had been shopping for buyers since February 2021, but previous potential deals, including one with the nearby Volusia County School Board, never came to fruition.
Trinity United Methodist’s plan to move was made years before Bardin took over as pastor in 2019, but he is looking forward to a building that better suits the church’s needs.
“About 12 years ago, they purchased some land on West Plymouth Avenue,” Bardin said. “The plan is to build a new facility in that part of town. To make that happen, we have to sell this place to move to the place.”
Knowing construction of a new church will likely take two years, at least, Bardin said the congregation is currently navigating the logistics and timing of their relocation.
With Trinity looking forward to a building that better suits the congregation’s needs, the Levingses are looking forward to revitalizing the building left behind, with visions of a small brewery, a juice bar and other amenities in addition to living space.
The project emulates other community marketplaces that gather small retailers to create a shopping experience, like East End Market in Orlando and Plant Street Market in Winter Garden.
“East End actually was originally a church,” Levings said. “So it was really helpful to see how they could take a church and do something like that.”
As at East End Market, the plan for the first floor of NorthWest Square includes artisanal retail spots, a juice bar or a cafe, and rooms for artist cooperatives in the section of the building added on to the original sanctuary in the late 1950s.
The sanctuary and fellowship halls in the original 1926 portion would be preserved as assembly rooms. Fifty parking spaces are already located on the property.
Keeping the space intact is one of the objectives, the Levingses said, because the project — their very first — is near and dear to them.
“I didn’t want to be a developer, but this is something I think we, as a city, need,” Chris Levings said. “We live in the area. … I know the building, since I went to church there from age 4 until after high school.”
While it might be easier — and more immediately profitable — to turn the entire property into apartments, Levings said, that would involve major renovations that would destroy the integrity of the property.
“That would be taking a sanctuary, and changing the space, and not letting the space dictate the use,” Chris Levings said.
Another important factor for the Levingses is creating a space for the community. The concept creates a neighborhood hub and food marketplace neighbors can walk to, the Levingses said.
“Increasing walkability in the area is one of the primary goals,” Jessica Levings said.
People who work at the School Board offices next door, and parents dropping off their children at St. Barnabas Episcopal School across the street, could walk over for brunch or to have a glass of wine after work.
“It’s intended for usage throughout the day — a place people go for breakfast, or stop in for lunch, popping in after work to do some shopping,” Jessica Levings said. “Not everyone will be there at the same time.”
That reassured the nearby residents, who, while supportive, had some concerns about traffic, and about the plan to include a beer-and-wine taproom.
“This is a residential neighborhood,” Jessica Levings said. “It’s not going to be a bar. This is a daytime space for the community, that loves their community, to use throughout the day.”
The plan requires significant investment by the Levingses, who are working with the law firm Cobb Cole to have the property rezoned as a mixed-use planned development.
Although the couple don’t plan to make any major changes to the building’s facade and existing assembly rooms, they will have to bring the building up to modern codes.
The process of rezoning, renovations, cosmetic upgrades, and bringing the building up to code, puts their tentative opening date in the fall of 2023, the Levingses said.