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Sustainable Communities Thought Leadership

Historic Atlanta Church Seeks to Use Transfer of Development Rights to Expand Community Services

By: Gary A. Cornell, FAICP

Organizations thinking about how to best use their land to better achieve their goals is a very common practice. What may be less commonplace is a concept of monetizing development rights to serve organizational priorities. This mechanism, transfer of development rights (TDR), may be a familiar term from an historic preservation and land conservation perspective. For reference, transfer of development rights (TDR), as defined by the City of Atlanta zoning code, is a process by which development rights are severed from a property that will never be built to its maximum allowable amount and affixed to a ‘receiving property’ that can take those rights to increase its density. New to Atlanta is that one local church, Central Presbyterian, is looking at TDR as a mechanism to fund the growing need for affordable and supportive housing.

Central’s story is one that is becoming more common in many cities, including Atlanta. Faith-based organizations are taking a fresh look at their resources and how they use them to further their mission and the work they are called to do in the community. As congregations think about housing, they are increasingly looking at the resource beneath their feet – their land and uniquely their development rights – to advance their mission. 

In 2018 Central Presbyterian formed a task force to examine more ways to serve the community. The task force determined that the most obvious unmet need was to supply supportive, permanent housing and rehabilitative services at little or no cost for those recovering from imprisonment, drug abuse, many of whom are experiencing homelessness. Once the church settled on extending this part of its ministry to the community, two questions emerged:  1) Where will we find the money? and 2) Where on our little site could we build housing?

Central Presbyterian Church is an historic congregation with an historic building. It has contributed to the life and history of downtown Atlanta in many ways, such as when it opened its doors as a refuge for people drawn to Atlanta by the funeral of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1968. In the 1960’s and 1970’s Central hosted a neighborhood health clinic that served the vulnerable at little or no cost. For the past 20 years the church has provided legislative advocacy for homeless and direct services including meals, cold night shelter, food pantry and job placement assistance to homeless people through the Central Outreach and Advocacy Center, a separate 501(c)(3) organization hosted by the church.

Central Presbyterian Church owns about 65,000 square feet of buildings on a 1.08-acre site located in downtown Atlanta, right across from Georgia’s State Capitol. The church property was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1986. As in most cities, the City of Atlanta closely regulates any modifications to such historic buildings that might affect their historic character and strongly resists demolition of historic properties.  Nonetheless, city zoning allows a floor-area-ratio of 25 on their property, essentially allowing the property to be redeveloped with buildings comprising over 1.17 million square feet. An attempt by the church to capitalize on this kind of density would likely result in demolition of this historic landmark. What if there was another way? 

In August 2019 the task force hit upon one possible answer – transferable development rights. In 2003 the city of Atlanta passed an ordinance authorizing the church, along with a list of 60 other historic landmark sites, the opportunity to transfer the unused development rights from  their properties by selling their unused development rights for use by a major redevelopment project in some other qualified property in the City. In the case of Central, it was entitled to occupy buildings with over 1.17 million square feet. Therefore, it could transfer over 1 million square feet of its development rights and still have room left over to expand its current facilities.

Now that church leadership has voted to approve “severing” up to 1 million square feet of development rights, representatives of the church are preparing an application to the City of Atlanta to start the process of selling millions of dollars of real estate rights to other interested parties in the City. Once this occurs, the church hopes to expand its legacy of service to the community while still preserving its beautiful historic building. What about a site for supportive housing? It is unlikely that there would be enough space on its current property, but having the funds from the sale of development rights would enable the church to partner with others to build the housing on a separate, but nearby site.

More to come – but in the meantime, this innovative approach may offer a model for how other Atlanta-based churches, non-profits and public entities can reimagine using their assets to serve broader community needs. 


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