Phuc Tran was far from home, traveling in Brazil, when the phone call came.
“You ready for this?” asked Will Jeffers, a friend back in Raleigh.
Tran had been searching for years for land near downtown Raleigh, with Jeffers as his guide. Now they had a place in sight – a tenth of an acre on the city’s eastern flank – and it was time to decide whether Tran would buy.
But the novice developer couldn’t have been ready, not completely, for what was to come. This wasn’t just land. This was the old heart of the historically African-American Prince Hall district. The historic Gethsemane Seventh-day Adventist Church was on the market, and there was barely a week to act.
The place was due for demolition, and hundreds of people were asking for some angel to intervene.
“And that lucky – or unlucky – person was me,” Tran said this week. That was a joke, he quickly added, but it rang awfully true.
Three years after that call, the 40-year-old finds himself the owner and savior of a 93-year-old building. He’s also hundreds of thousands of dollars in the hole and has become the focus of debate in a fast-gentrifying area.
Early next month, the Raleigh City Council will consider whether to rezone the historically black church, allowing Tran to bring a restaurant with alcohol to the once-holy space.
Tran and his supporters say the new property owner has saved a historic structure. To his critics, he’s making an unwanted business out of a neighborhood institution.
He has the blessing of congregation elders, but he faces objections from several in the community, including Citizens Advisory Council leader Lonnette Williams. She sees an intrusion of business into a residential area, and an inversion of its culture.
Tran’s project, in short, has fallen square in the middle of Raleigh’s struggles with culture, class and displacement caused by inner-city redevelopment.
“It’s interesting,” he said, “how life leads you in different directions you never imagine.”
Decades of use
The modest peak-roofed building at 501 S. Person St. dates to the early 1920s. From a distance, it seems to be built from uniform rows of concrete blocks.
Up close, the church reveals its peculiar style. Each of its pieces was shaped by hand on site, then pressed with chunks of quartz, likely by members of the congregation.
In Raleigh, the Seventh-day Adventist denomination found its first believers in black communities. Its teachings, which forbid alcohol and tobacco, reached Raleigh with traveling booksellers near the end of World War I, according to a history prepared for the Raleigh Historic Development Commission.
The early congregation met for months in a tent, but the church soon rose on its tiny lot two blocks south of Moore Square. By 1981, the group had outgrown its home, moving to a new building on Sanderford Road.
The property would go first to another church, then on to one of the largest private property owners in downtown: Greg Hatem’s Empire Properties, which bought the place in 2005.
Hatem kept the place largely as it was, but he saw potential. He had a model: Just a few years prior, and a few blocks north, he had converted All Saints Chapel into a lofty white-walled hall for events.
Meanwhile, various congregations continued to meet in the Gethsemane church.
And that all changed when a tornado came.
Making a deal
The storm ripped through eastern Raleigh on April 16, 2011, killing three in a mobile-home park and damaging scores of buildings in the historically black areas east of downtown. That day brought the church building near to its end, twisting the roof from its anchoring.
Within a year, there was a death sentence: Raleigh condemned the building, leaving Empire Properties either to fix it or destroy it.
The neighborhood cried out, some 200 people signing onto a petition to save the place.
“If we continue to destroy buildings in this neighborhood, we aren’t going to have any history to point to but historic signs,” J.E. Williams, who lives within sight of the church, told a News & Observer reporter then.
“We’re becoming a neighborhood of vacant lots,” he said.
Other projects were taking up Empire’s capacity, and the building was a hazard, so the company took out a demolition permit. But Hatem was open to a sale, and that’s where Phuc Tran came in.
They had a deal hashed out even before Tran returned from Brazil. He and Empire completed the purchase just before demolition began. There’s a photo of Tran standing out front of the building just after the sale, a warning notice still posted on its door.
“He looked at it for about five minutes, and said, ‘Alright, I want to do it,’” Jeffers recalled. “I don’t think he had any idea what he was getting into.”
Tran looks happy in the picture – and nervous. No bank would back the sale, so he paid $125,000 in cash. He makes good money as a strategist for Verizon, and he’s single without kids – but the sale took nearly everything he had. On a week’s notice, he had erased the foothold he had built since his family arrived in North Carolina from Vietnam some 20 years ago.
The deal gave Tran two years to complete repairs. He signed a covenant that protects the place from demolition, by him or any future owner, he said. He agreed to participate in historic preservation programs.
For a guy who had never taken on a development project, the physical challenge was daunting. But that would only be the half of it.
“I thought – I always, always thought that I’m with the people,” he said.
‘To save it’
Each step of the repairs seemed to reveal another unexpected task. Tran hired specialty crews to do what he couldn’t and did the rest himself, cramming construction materials in his SUV.
Tran’s team installed new steel crossbeams to shore up the storm-wrecked roof. They gently sprayed decades of white paint from those block walls, restoring them to the stone gray of the church’s first years.
As he worked, he assembled a huge team, including Jenny Harper, a neighbor and advocate for the church; Jeffers as contractor; the architect Kurt Eichenberger; and the groups Preservation N.C. and the Raleigh Historic Development Commission.
Tran took the wooden pews into storage, and a master craftsman remade the stained glass window missing from one of the gabled windows at the front of the hall.
Then there was the question of the walls, made from nothing but stacked, irregular blocks. The group reconstructed the process, pouring new bricks into hand-made molds.
“To save it, we had to repeat the process,” Tran said.
The building today is nearly restored, except for its doors. Now Tran is trying to use the place – and that’s where things get complicated.
When he bought it, Tran thought he might use it as an office or a home. Others suggested a bakery and a flower shop, or a microbrewery. Word of that last option reached the community, souring Tran’s relationship with some of his neighborhood.
The landowner’s proposing now to put a high-end restaurant in the place, with alcohol service. He has had some talks with a potential restaurant owner, but nothing’s sure yet.
He’ll need a rezoning to allow the business. He wants the city to change the lot from residential-business to downtown mixed-use. This lines up with the city’s long-term proposed plans for the area, which could become effective with a vote later this year, but Tran wants the change now.
‘People are concerned’
About 15 people showed up to a recent community meeting, confronting him with a series of questions and criticism. They asked whether the menu would meet the needs of the community, and how extensive its outdoor seating might be. They asked too about where the business could fit its trash and recycling.
The site is at the corner of a pre-war residential neighborhood, hemmed closely by houses on two sides. Person Pointe condominiums, built in 2002, stands across South Person, and The Ten at South Person condo complex will open on the same block.
“That’s a residential area,” said Lonnette Williams, the citizen council chair. “People are concerned. They don’t want it to become a hospitality district. They’re concerned about little bars, things like that, noise interfering with their quality of life.”
Hatem is among the project’s doubters, too. He believed at the time of the sale that Tran would keep the place as a residence or place of worship, he said.
“I think he’s done a fine job stabilizing it,” he said of the project. “I think the issue is finding the most appropriate use.”
Local opposition steepens Tran’s challenge: The project will have to win a super-majority of Raleigh City Council votes, or six out of eight, because the joint owners of several nearby properties have filed a protest petition.
The signers said there wasn’t enough space between the buildings to allow for restaurant uses and worried about “undesirable pedestrian noise,” among other statements.
Tran has tried to address some of those concerns. His proposal would forbid him and future owners from bringing a bar, tavern or nightclub to the property, among other conditions. He has promised to use small garbage and recycling bins instead of a Dumpster-sized receptacle.
He has tried to answer religious objections, too. He toured the building and explained his project with elders of the present Gethsemane church.
A letter from First Elder Peggy Bryant, dated May 2, says the congregation has left the property and the new owner “has all rights and privileges to do as he pleases in this space.”
But Williams, who attended the Adventist church with her grandmother, said that the building remains a part of African-American history in the area.
“Certainly, it would desecrate the idea of the establishment that used to be there,” she said. “… That is something that we are sensitive about. It’s a culture thing.”
Tran acknowledges that gentrification is changing the area.
As wealthy investors pour more money into buildings, existing homeowners have incentive to leave their longtime homes. In some cases, rising land values increase tax bills. Over time, a place can lose its people.
Many of the Raleigh City Council’s conversations lately have turned to housing affordability and neighborhood preservation. A forthcoming city plan may set long-awaited policies.
Tran hopes there’s a middle ground. And the preserved building, he said, can at least be “an anchor for that historic neighborhood.”
The council may take up the matter at its first meeting in June, Tran said.