Pittsburgh’s oldest Black church this week revealed plans for an apartment building on its historic site, with hopes to revitalize a once-thriving congregation through housing and social activism. 

In April, the Pittsburgh Penguins agreed to give 1.5 acres of Lower Hill District land along Crawford and Colwell streets to the Bethel AME Church. The neighborhood was home to the church from the early 1800s until the 1950s, when it was taken using eminent domain and demolished to make room for the Civic Arena. The church is currently located in the Middle Hill District on Webster Avenue. 

A preview of the new apartment complex that Bethel AME plans to build in two to three years.

Bethel AME Pastor Dale Snyder told PublicSource that the congregation settled on plans to keep the church at its current location and instead build a 128-unit apartment complex with the intention of finding a daycare provider for the ground level. 

“We want this place to be a citadel of hope again to give people the tools needed to go forward,” Snyder said. “I have congregants who can’t afford to come back [to the Hill District] and this will let them come home. They want to come home.”

Church leaders and the Penguins initially reached a tentative deal in September 2022 to return part of the Lower Hill to Bethel AME. Penguins President Kevin Acklin said then that the deal was the result of negotiations over two years. 

The Rev. Dale Snyder, left, pastor of Bethel AME Church, talks with Pittsburgh Mayor Ed Gainey at the Restorative Justice Rededication Ceremony for church on Friday, April 14, 2023, at the former location of the legendary Lower Hill District church. (Photo by Stephanie Strasburg/PublicSource)

Snyder said construction is expected to start in the next two to three years, depending on how long it takes to get through the approval process.

“I know how to bring people from diverse backgrounds together,” Snyder said. “I’m a social justice person that can make the economy and capitalism work for the poor.”

Church plan comes amid construction boom

The Urban Redevelopment Authority [URA] demolished the church in 1957. Since then, Bethel AME’s congregation has sought justice.

Under the deal recently reached with the Penguins, the church will build an apartment complex in a section of the Hill District that is undergoing extensive development by the Penguins’ development partner, the Buccini/Pollin Group.

The Penguins deferred requests for comment to Snyder and the church’s community. Snyder said that the church’s  relationship with the Penguins “is great, working in lockstep with them.” 

Snyder said that the church plans to stay in its current location and undergo renovations using $100,000 that the Penguins donated. 

The Crawford-Colwell site plan includes have an educational component, with day care and after-school programs. The apartment units would be reserved for people making between 30% and 60% of the area’s median income. Plans also call for 97 to 100 parking spots on the ground floor. 

African American-owned firm Moody Nolan, out of Columbus, Ohio, is serving as the architect on the project. To fund the project, the church is applying for two low income housing tax credits. Snyder hopes to receive more funding from other groups including foundations.

“We want to offer amenities in the building that tax credits can’t afford,” Snyder said. “We don’t want people living here to go to apartment buildings around and see they have better amenities than us. We’re putting together a case study and going to foundations to ask them to help subsidize so that this doesn’t look like a project, but a shining example of what restorative justice looks like. This is how we can solve some of the entrenched systemic racism in our major corridors.”

Snyder said the congregation initially envisioned a building with 332 units but scaled the project back due to space limitations. 

“We were trying to target those who were pushed out of the Hill and couldn’t afford to move back,” Snyder said. “We want to turn our building into an incubator to solve low-to-moderate income challenges. We want to raise the wealth of our residents.”

The church’s plans come amid Hill development projects and funding opportunities for the area’s residents. 

The URA is currently processing homeowner repair applications in the neighborhood. A First National Bank-anchored tower in the Lower Hill is nearing completion while plans for a Live Nation music venue have been finalized and approved.

“This is an area where there will be a plethora of job opportunities,” Snyder said.  “We’re hoping FNB and Live Nation will set aside some jobs for our residents.” 

These developments, largely aimed at Pittsburgh’s Black residents, come after a 2022 housing needs assessment program revealed the city continues to lose its non-white population and has lost 3,000 households making less than 30% of the area median income 

“We’re putting our sweat in this to reinvest into our people,” Snyder said. “That’s the mission of Bethel: We’ve always been there to help our people overcome impediments.”

Editor’s note (10/19/23): This story was updated to reflect Bethel AME’s hiring of Moody Nolan. A design firm referenced in an earlier version is no longer involved in the project.

Eric Jankiewicz is PublicSource’s economic development reporter, and can be reached at ericj@publicsource.org or on Twitter @ericjankiewicz.

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Eric Jankiewicz is a reporter focused on housing and economic development for PublicSource. A native New Yorker, Eric moved to Pittsburgh in 2017 and has since fallen in love with his adopted city, even...