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The Savannah College of Art and Design has plans to sell its theater building at 173 14th St. NE to megachurch Free Chapel Worship Center amid opposition from some neighborhood residents.
Filed by the church in the spring, a special use application requests permission for church use at the property, which has been used for assemblies by SCAD in the last few years. The application lists an expected occupancy of 350 congregants of all ages on Sunday mornings, with “other services” to be held on various nights throughout the rest of the week.
The plan has elicited opposition from some neighborhood residents who argue that the new use will create too much traffic and is incompatible with the neighborhood. An online petition started earlier this month also points to a lack of parking and Free Chapel Worship Center Senior Pastor Jentezen Franklin’s legal troubles and ties to former President Donald Trump. It has garnered more than 500 signatures.
“Once you do get this information out to our community and residents, they are really opposed to it,” neighborhood resident Rebecca Godleski, who started the petition, told What Now Atlanta. “We’re happy to talk with SCAD or whoever it may be to discuss potential other opportunities, but this just doesn’t seem like the right fit for this corner and the heart of Midtown.”
SCAD acquired the theater building, which has 560 seats, in 2013 from the Woodruff Arts Center for $1.85 million when it was used as the 14th Street Playhouse. The property sits at the southeastern corner of the intersection of Juniper and 14th Streets.
Neither Free Chapel Worship Center nor SCAD responded to requests for comment.
Free Chapel Worship Center has several locations, including in Gainesville, as well as South Carolina and California. In Midtown, it operated out of the Center Stage Theater from 2018 to 2020 and at the Rich Auditorium at the Woodruff Arts Center since last year.
For 173 14th St. NE, plans call for parking needs to be accommodated by nearby publicly accessible parking garages. “For the church use, it is anticipated that the parking will be most in demand in the evenings and on Sundays when parking is not otherwise used,” the church’s special use application reads.
Despite some neighborhood opposition, Free Chapel’s plans for the site have also received neighborhood support.
Morris, Manning & Martin attorney Carl Westmoreland, who is representing Free Chapel in the special use application process, said the church’s plans had gone through the approvals process without many complaints until this month. It was recommended by both the Midtown Neighbors’ Association and Neighborhood Planning Unit – E that the city not oppose the special use application.
“I do see the petition but I don’t think issues that are raised are what the city has got to base their decision on,” Westmoreland said. “This would generate less traffic than just about anything else you could have there.”
When reached for comment, Atlanta City Councilmember Amir Farokhi, too, shared a statement that there is no legal justification for rejecting the special use permit application.
“While I may share your political view of the proposal, that is not, by law, reason to reject the special use permit,” he said in a statement sent to concerned Midtown residents. “Indeed, diversity and inclusion implies that all are welcome and that applies to a church as well. Indeed, there are likely Midtown residents who attend this church, already being held a block or so away at the Woodruff Arts Center.”
The special use application is scheduled to get a vote from the Atlanta City Council on August 2.