Emmaus Lutheran Church closes its doors.
Emmaus has been in West Highland for more than a century.
Emmaus being replaced by another Lutheran church.
Emmaus Lutheran Church, after more than a hundred years in West Highland, has closed its doors.
Emmaus, with little fanfare, closed its doors, following a failed attempt to rezone the property at West 32nd Avenue and Irving Street to, its home since the early 1900s.
Early this year, the Denver City Council failed to provide the needed 10 votes to approve a contentious rezoning request, which would have allowed a 2-story medical office building to be built on a portion of the property.
The council voted in late January, 8-4, to approve the zoning, but it needed a super majority for the request to be approved.
“Emmaus Lutheran Church no longer exists,” said Keith Bushdiecker, chairman of the property board for the church.
The church first bought the property in 1907 and soon after built a church and a school on the site.
However, a church will remain on the property.
In about two weeks, St. John’s Denver, which has a Lutheran church in Washington Park, expects to take over the Emmaus property.
St. John’s is in the process of getting a loan to assume about $348,000 of Emmaus debt to seal the deal.
“I guess technically, we do exist, but we terminated our operation and laid off our staff on Sept. 30,” Bushdiecker said.
The church could have sold the site to a developer for millions of dollars, Bushdiecker said. The 1.445-acre site is believed to be the largest undeveloped parcel with one non-government owner in West Highland.
In fact, that possibility of selling the land to a developer that would raze the school and church building, was raised as a possibility during one of the heated public meetings prior to the council vote in January.
A number of neighbors, as well as City Councilman Rafael Espinoza, opposed the rezoning, worrying it would lead to more congestion and traffic at what already at times is one of the most congested intersections in West Highland.
They also were concerned that a relatively large office building would not fit in the character of an area that is mostly single-family homes. The land itself is zoned for single-family homes.
The church, however, wanted the medical office building to provide a steady stream of income for the foreseeable future to supports its ministry.
“We could have sold it for millions,” Bushdiecker said.
Asked if he harbored any ill-will or bad feelings toward neighbors that at times became very personal in attacks against some church officials during the rezoning process, he paused before answering.
“Any bad feelings I had were that we weren’t trusted,” Bushdiecker said.
“I think all along people who were against us felt like were telling them one thing and intended to do something else.I got the feeling they thought we were just another developer who would tell them one thing and then do another thing,” he said.
“They did not believe us,” Bushdiecker said.
He said neighbors should now realize they were being sincere, since they are conveying the property to another church, rather than selling it to a developer.
“Our goal, our objective, was to continue a Lutheran ministry on the site,” he said.
“Our goal was never to make money and walk away,” Bushdiecker said.
A number of developers contacted them after the council vote, but the church never responded, he said.
“We did think of doing something developable that was allowed under our zoning, like building a daycare center on the site, but it just didn’t make sense,” Bushdiecker said.
A Denver charter school also was eager to take over the majority of the site, he said. However, Emmaus would have ended up as a de facto small tenant, even though it would technically still own the property, he said.
He said it is hard to say goodbye to Emmaus, especially given its long history on the site.
“It is sad,” Bushdiecker said.
“It was a very difficult decision to make. It certainly wasn’t the decision we wanted to make. But at the end, our church council decided that was the best thing to do. Our membership is declining, our membership is getting older, so we kept saying the best way to keep a ministry going was to replace it with a church with a vibrant, thriving, growing membership,” he explained.
St. John’s has a congregation of about 600 and operates a pre-school for about 150, and a kindergarten through 8th grade with about 200 students.
After the rezoning failed, Espinoza offered to mediate a redevelopment deal for the site that would be acceptable to neighbors and the church.
“We met with Councilman Espinoza a few times,” Bushdiecker said.
“He kept saying he wanted to help us, but we couldn’t reach any kind of consensus,” he said.
He said that last time they had any communication with Espinoza was by e-mail sometime between April and June.
He said Espinoza asked them how much money the church needed to redevelop the site and keep the church there.
“Frankly, we didn’t think it was any of his business,” Bushdiecker said.
Last Friday, Espinoza said he is pleased how it turned out.
“So far, so good,” Espinoza said.
“We have a wonderful new congregation and new owners who seem to be much more open,” as far as dealing with the concerns of neighbors, he said.
“Everyone is pleased and I really think this is the best possible outcome to have another faith community in the neighborhood that seems to have a better use of their assets in mind,” Espinoza said.
AJ Mastic, the Discipleship Pastor and Multi-Site Coordinator at St. John’s, said the new church plans to be a good neighbor.
“Our hope is to launch the new campus in late 2017,” Mastic said.
“We will be one ministry in two locations,” he said.
While the $338,000 in debt it is assuming is not “a small sum, it’s very manageable and at that price the property is a great deal for us,” he said.”
“Our mission is “Connecting People to Jesus,” he added. “We desire to be good neighbors, good listeners and we’re excited about serving the community.”
St. John’s has a long history in Denver
He said they were already looking and praying for a second site when they were approached by Emmaus.
The church has a long history in Denver.
“St. John’s is one of the oldest churches in Denver,” Mastic said.
“We have been in Denver since 1879 and have been in Washington Park since the late 1960s,” he said.
The first two churches burned down.
“I went to the address of the first building and it is a skyscraper now,” he said.
Another early St. John’s is now a Greek Orthodox church.
“Soon, the fifth location will be in West Highland,” he said.
St. John’s eventually may open a school on the West Highland property, he said.
“We are firm believers in Christian education,” Mastic said. “But first, we are going to get the church up and running.”
He is well aware of the ill feelings a number of neighbors had with Emmaus, but he doesn’t expect any lingering animosity to St. John’s.
He noted that he has met with the West Highland Neighborhood Association and said he was welcomed by the members of the Registered Neighborhood Organization
The church has no plans to redevelop the site.
“We are not developers,” he said.
Espinoza open to mixed-use for Emmaus
Espinoza said he never thought Emmaus would sell the property to a developer, once their rezoning request was denied.
“Other than single-family homes, there really isn’t much can be done with the land without a rezoning,” he said.
He said he and neighbors “came up with something like six schemes for development,” which included a mix of commercial uses, apartments and the church.
“We set aside an 8-week process,” to come with a mutually agreeable plan, he said.
The solution needed to address revenue needs of the church, its mission and its need for space, he said.
“These were things they had never really thought about themselves,” Espinoza said. “This was something that really never got into the heads of the congregation.
“Financially, I think time had just run out for them,” he said.
Bushdiecker the pending takeover by St. John’s returns Emmaus to its roots.
“Emmaus was really originally started by St. John’s 109 years ago,” Bushdiecker said.
“A few of the members broke off, well, not really broke off, but started their own church in West Highland that became Emmaus,” he said.
St. John’s replacing Emmaus is the best solution, he believes, despite the congregation’s heartfelt belief that a medical office building would have proven to be a valuable resource for the neighborhood as well as funding a ministry for the next 100 years.
“I keep saying to myself, in the end, God has a plan and his plan wasn’t what we had in mind.”
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