The building opened nearly 100 years ago as Riverside Baptist Church and was dedicated to saving souls and changing lives. It is now home to 91 mixed-income apartments.
For some of the residents there, it is still serving much the same purpose.
Just ask David Garcia, who works down the street at the Walmart on Beach Street.
“I was making enough that, with my paycheck, I could live for five days in a hotel, but then the next two days I had to live in my car,” he said. “I couldn’t go on like that.”
Someone he worked with mentioned the Cielo Place Apartments, which had opened in 2022 in the converted church and offered housing for individuals and families earning no more than 60% of the area median income.
“It was a lifesaver,” said Garcia.
Cielo Place is one of four affordable housing projects in Fort Worth from Austin-based Saigebrook Development. It was also one of the most challenging, said Alice Cruz, a development associate at the business, which focuses on building affordable housing projects.
“We’ve done some conversions before, but this one pushed us,” she said.
The property looked likely to have met with the wrecking ball had Saigbrook not purchased it in 2019 after being contacted by the city of Fort Worth.
Originally built in 1924, the building designed by architects Easterwood and Easterwood was expanded in 1951 and again in 1958, as Fort Worth and the area grew. However, when the area fell on hard times as manufacturing plants in the area closed, the church had to face the music. It sang its final “Silent Night” on Christmas Eve in 2018. The property was sold first to the Travis Academy of Fine Arts, then again to a private developer.
Saigebrook Development later purchased the church to preserve and renovate the structure for affordable housing at the new Cielo Place Apartments. It not only wasn’t going to be easy, it wasn’t going to be cheap.
The church received a historic designation from the National Register for Historic Places in 2020 which opened up the possibility of federal tax credits that could be used to help pay for the renovation.
To help finance the $22 million development, Hunt Capital Partners provided $15.1 million in federal low-income housing tax credit and federal historic tax credit equity through a proprietary fund with JPMorgan Chase. Saigebrook Development also syndicated state historic tax credits, which contributed to a $2.7 million loan for the development. JPMorgan Chase Bank provided a $17.5 million construction loan as well as a $3.5 million permanent loan commitment through Impact C.I.L.
“Building conversions like Cielo Place in Fort Worth are special because they allow us to honor the history of a community while adapting to its current needs — especially considering the rising cost of housing in Texas and across the United States,” said Ken Overshiner, executive director of community development real estate at Chase.
Chase has helped finance several of Saigebrook’s projects in Fort Worth.
The construction project consisted of converting the central church building as well as the attached expansion buildings into 91 apartments, 80 of those reserved for affordable housing. The sanctuary was repurposed as a central meeting space and commons area and part of the choir loft was converted into apartments.
Because the project involved a historic designation, they had to maintain many elements of the original design. As a centerpiece of the community’s common area, several rows of pews from the original sanctuary, the original altar and baptismal, along with the stained-glass window behind it, remain untouched.
“That worked in our favor and we were able to use the stained glass and repurpose some beautiful features, such as the altar and baptismal that really keep the character of the original building,” said Saigebrook’s Cruz.
Saigebrook Development worked with Miller-Slayton Architects and Ink & Oro, an interior design firm, to maintain the integrity of the historical architecture. Other members of the team included Housing Channel and Fort Construction as the general contractor and prime subcontractor. Accolade Property Management handles management duties. O-SDA Industries was the development consultant, and Tidwell Group was the accountant.
Sixty-nine residential units as well as community space were constructed inside the existing church buildings. A new three-story building at the back of the former church houses the other 22 units. Amenities include a business center, a clubhouse, a fitness center, a playground, on-site management, and parking.
The goal was to keep—or restore—elements in the space, with modern amenities intertwined throughout.
Along the way, they all learned a lot, said Cruz.
“We found the original or a copy of the original architect’s blueprints,” she said. That not only helped them as they refurbished the building, framed versions of the plans are used throughout the project as decorative — and informative — art work.
As the project neared completion at the beginning of 2022, Accolade Property Management leased all 91 units in less than 60 days.
“We knew that it would go quickly,” Cruz said. “There is such a need for affordable housing in Fort Worth in general and this location is great.”
Affordable housing continues to be an issue in Fort Worth as it remains one of the fastest-growing cities in the country. Currently job growth is projected to outpace the housing supply, leaving residents vulnerable to a volatile housing market, according to the city’s most recent Neighborhood Conservation Plan. Homes under $200,000 represented just 12% of the market in 2021 compared with 83% a decade ago, according to the report.
Saigebrook not only helped preserve the church and its associated buildings, it also helped preserve the large oak tree that had grown up in an open space between the church building and an education wing.
“We don’t have a meeting with the community — large or small — that someone doesn’t ask about that tree,” said Cruz. “It obviously means a lot to the community.”
The adaptive use of the Riverside Baptist Church building fit in with the revival of a building across the street, the former Scott’s Drug Store, housed in the McAdams Building at 3126 E. Belknap St. That building was saved from demolition by a former resident, Robert Bell, who purchased it in 2004, and helped spur redevelopment in the area.
“Having those two historic buildings intact as the area began to redevelop really is a testament to adaptive reuse,” said Libby Willis, a community leader and historic preservation advocate of the area. “Both of those buildings could have been lost.”
Instead, Willis said, they’ve been adaptively used and are now heavily in use.
“They’re not museum pieces,” she said. “Those two projects really helped preserve the character of the neighborhood and reenergize development.”
Saigebrook, which has three other projects in Fort Worth, is also planning another one in the area. It’s a new apartment building on Belknap Street down by the river. It is expected to be 94 units with affordable housing a key component, said Cruz. Chase is already on board to help finance that project.
Even though it is several miles west of the church, the river provides the development with another link to the former Riverside Baptist Church. The congregation itself dates back to the early 1900s when church members used the Trinity River for baptisms, said Cruz.
“It ties it all together,” she said.
Area: 5,140 square miles
Median household income in 2021: $50,710
Fort Worth: $68,235
American Indian: 1.3%
Bob Francis is business editor for the Fort Worth Report. Contact him at email@example.com. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.
Editor’s note: This story was updated to better reflect the development timeline of the area.