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BEACON PHOTO/ELI WITEK VISIONARIES — Jessica and Chris Levings, both 38, gather with their children outside Trinity United Methodist Church, where Chris attended church from age 4 through high school. The couple, who are both involved in real estate, both grew up in DeLand, and moved back from Atlanta eight years ago to raise their family. Now, they plan to buy the historic church and repurpose it as apartments and a community gathering spot. The Levings children are Lola, 8; Vivian, 6; Jack, 3; and Lettie, 9 months.

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.

The exterior of Trinity United Methodist Church.

10 COMMENTS

  1. When our Downtown is struggling, who in their right minds would approve a zoning change in an Historic residential neighborhood . Has anyone seen plans? Does this not have to be a public approval? Has anyone addressed parking? Traffic? Our city has over 400 apartments going into downtown and now this? We need to focus on making our main downtown strong and vibrant only then can we seek to expand commercial into residential. “Cobb Cole to have the property rezoned as a mixed-use planned development” Cobb and Cole relax with all your rezoning . Mixed-Use in a residential neighborhood is pretty aggressive. We cannot withstand this over development, its not fair for the already struggling local businesses and not good for the residents.

  2. As a resident and very close neighbor I have many concerns about this project. The biggest being a tap room and wine tasting business. You can say whatever you want to make neighbors happy but those kind of places are not daytime businesses and quite frankly even if they are they don’t belong in a residential area. I understand what they’re trying to do and say about expanding the quadrant but I like living close to downtown not in downtown and this is more than two blocks removed from the downtown area. N Clara Ave is already a busy enough street with the school board and Saint Barnabas granted they are time sensitive but any additional traffic is unwelcome. Keep downtown in downtown and out of our neighborhoods.

  3. Rezoning a historic property in a valuable residential neighborhood is bold indeed. Changing the allowable use of the property is forever— no matter who or what corporation owns it into the future. The article does not present convincing reasons for doing so. The least disruptive use is for the property to remain a church. If the city of DeLand were to approve such bold plans, what safeguards would the residents have that it would be completed? It’s possible that it would languish incomplete like the old Putnman Hotel property. Then what? It could easily become just 13 more Airbnb rental units in the middle of the neighborhood.

  4. Who was involved in this favorable neighborhood meeting Referenced in the article. Very vague and questionable credibility.
    This is a horrible idea and as a family who truly lives in downtown DeLand we do not support this plan.
    Because the named family own 6+ Historic homes that are used as unregulated Air BnB properties does not make them downtown neighbors. This is is total exploitation of a beautiful place of worship as well as the northwest historic district.

  5. Bad idea
    This would not be a good idea for the downtown neighborhood. As a resident of the surrounding neighborhood I see traffic and increased transient population being a huge problem. The couple mentioned in this article already own several homes in the downtown are that they use for Airb&b this would 13 more units to that plus beer and wine in a historic church is a disgrace. This would benefit the Levings family not the neighborhood. They call themselves neighbors but they live on Hontoon island not in the downtown neighborhood. I feel it’s a disgrace to this church to allow it to be altered for such use.

  6. The City should buy the Church keep the chapel for historical heritage tear down the addition and make it a park. Thats the best use for the Church. The city can buy it through a Federal Historic Grant. Then: We need to STOP all these land use changes in residential neighborhoods. So many residents are tired of the over development and the quality of such developments. What we must do is start an initiative to require a 4/5 or 5/5 vote for any land, zoning changes in residential zoned areas. It’s the only way to hold back these irresponsible developments. Let me be clear I am not againts well planned thought out responsible development.

  7. Wow!!!
    All the negative comments baffle me. I’m sure everyone who can’t say something positive have certainly done well in their property values with the growth of the downtown area.
    This should be supported greatly. If downtown is struggling, (which it doesn’t seem to be) it is only because the options are limited. Business designed around mostly adults while there is a University smack dab in the middle. A strip that at best is a 1/2 mile long.
    Expansion is a good thing to help bare the burden of such a limited area.
    I’m sure the Levings would be greatly open to suggestions. But they are visionary and want to keep a historical building standing in our quant City. I support this brave endeavor and wish them all the luck.
    Good luck Levings family and don’t let the party poopers bring down you’re vision!

  8. So because you obviously know the family who purchased it, everyone who isn’t happy with it are party poopers? Why because they are all correct? This isn’t on the main drag, it’s in the middle of homes and one major business and schools. Putting a bar and wine room near a school sounds like a great idea? Okay…
    Many MANY of us are tired of the developments of more apartments, why do we have to accept it?
    And why does it matter if our home values have gone up? We’re not selling, but a lot of us are also struggling because of everything going up, so how does that help us?

    I agree with all the other posts, this doesn’t sound like the neighborhood had a vote, just maybe their friends.
    Downtown is definitely struggling as the building that has The Table is currently 90% empty now. Morgan and Morgan left, as did the dr offices. Dorothy’s is barely hanging on.

    Yes we live near a college, but there’s tons of eatery’s and several bars, not to mention most of the clothing shops are extremely overpriced!
    And several well known businesses have left.

    There’s so many hard working people not being heard throughout the area with their businesses in downtown or residents.

    Over developed like outside areas of Deland. Great.

  9. The problems that the Table and Dorothy’s are having is a problem with the building owner, not a problem with downtown DeLand. The building is being managed horribly, deferred maintenance, broken plumbing, HVAC, etc. talk to the owner of either business and they will tell you. This is why tenants are leaving.

    This church was FOR SALE, the church no longer wants the building. The school board had the opportunity to buy it and declined. Saint Barnabas had the opportunity to buy it and declined. Anyone had the ability to buy it and this couple stepped up to risk a million dollars to purchase it plus probably at least another million to renovate it. This saves a historic structure rather than letting it sit vacant and deteriorate, becoming a magnet for crime.

    This is exactly the kind of infill redevelopment DeLand needs rather than clear cutting outlying land for cookie cutter suburban sprawl.

    People are great at telling others what to do with their money and private property, but where are they when it is time to risk their own funds to implement what they think should be done with the property?

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