Couple have bold plans for historic church

BEACON PHOTO / ELI WITEK VISIONARIES – Jessica and Chris Levings, both 38, reunite with their children outside Trinity United Methodist Church, where Chris attended the 4-year-old church in high school. The couple, both involved in real estate, both grew up in DeLand and returned from Atlanta eight years ago to raise their family. Now they plan to buy the historic church and turn it into apartments and a community gathering place. The Levings children are Lola, 8; Viviane, 6 years old; Jacques, 3; and Lettie, 9 months old.

A local small-scale real estate investor has daring plans for the Trinity United Methodist Church building at 306 W. Wisconsin Ave., a few blocks from bustling downtown DeLand.

The concept: transform the first floor of the historic building into a community market for sellers and artists, and convert the space upstairs into 13 apartments. The exterior of the church would remain relatively unchanged and the great shrine would become a place of community gathering.

Chris Levings and his wife, Jessica, who is a real estate agent with Kemp Realty Group, are under contract to purchase the 1.3 acre property for $ 1 million. An August closing date is designed to give the church time to relocate to West Plymouth Avenue, where a new building is planned on vacant land the church bought several years ago.

“This building is wonderful. It’s really, really big, but it’s not set up the way we need it, ”Trinity United Methodist pastor Todd Bardin said.

The Levings are in their due diligence period, where they can decide if they want to go through with it, but Chris Levings said it was “full steam ahead”.

They had preliminary meetings with city development officials about their concept.

The couple were encouraged by the response they got at a neighborhood meeting on December 16, where they introduced what they call NorthWest Square to people who live nearby.

“There has been an overwhelmingly positive response from the community,” said Chris Levings. “People seemed to be really excited about having something that would expand this downtown northwest quadrant. “

Trinity United Methodist had been looking 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 move plan was worked out years before Bardin was appointed pastor in 2019, but he looks forward to a building that better meets the needs of the church.

“About 12 years ago they bought land on West Plymouth Avenue,” Bardin said. “The plan is to build a new facility in this part of town. For that to happen, we have to sell this place to move into. “

Knowing that building a new church will likely take at least two years, Bardin said the congregation is currently managing the logistics and timing of their relocation.

As Trinity looks forward to a building that better meets the needs of the congregation, the Levings are eager to revitalize the left behind building, with visions of a small brewery, juice bar and other amenities in more living space.

The project emulates other community markets that bring together small retailers to create a shopping experience, such as East End Market in Orlando and Plant Street Market in Winter Garden.

“East End was actually 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 first floor plan of NorthWest Square includes artisan outlets, a juice bar or cafe, and rooms for artist co-ops in the section of the building added to the original shrine at the late 1950s.

The sanctuary and communion rooms in the original 1926 part would be kept as meeting rooms. About fifty parking spaces are already located on the property.

Keeping the space intact is one of the goals, the Levings said, as the project – their very first – is near and dear to them.

“I didn’t want to be a developer, but it’s something that I think we as a city need,” said Chris Levings. “We live in the neighborhood. … I know the building because I went to church there from the age of 4 until after high school.

While it may be easier – and more immediately profitable – to turn the entire property into apartments, Levings said, it would involve major renovations that would destroy the integrity of the property.

“It would be taking a sanctuary and changing the space, and not letting the space dictate the use,” said Chris Levings.

Another important factor for the Levings is to create space for the community. The concept creates a neighborhood hub and neighbors to the food market can walk to, the Levings said.

“Increasing the pedestrian potential in the area is one of the main goals,” said Jessica Levings.

People working in the school board offices next door and parents dropping off their children at St. Barnabas Episcopal School across the street could walk around for brunch or for a drink of wine after work.

“It’s meant to be used throughout the day – a place where people go for breakfast or stop for lunch, passing by after work for shopping,” said Jessica Levings. “Not everyone will be there at the same time.

This reassured neighboring residents, who, while supportive, had concerns about traffic and the plan to include a beer and wine hall.

“It’s a residential area,” Jessica Levings said. “It won’t be a bar. It is a day space for the community, which loves its community, to use throughout the day.

The plan requires a significant investment from the Levings, who are working with law firm Cobb Cole to have the property rezoned as a planned mixed-use development.

While the couple don’t plan to make any major changes to the building’s facade and existing meeting rooms, they will need to bring the building up to modern standards.

The process of rezoning, renovations, cosmetic improvements and upgrading the building puts its tentative opening date in the fall of 2023, the Levings said.

The exterior of Trinity United Methodist Church.

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