Big Bethel plans multi-use project for Auburn Avenue
Big Bethel AME Church plans to expand its footprint in the historic Auburn Avenue corridor with additional housing, parking, retail and restaurants.
The church, founded in 1847 and one of oldest AME churches in Georgia, has teamed up with two development teams — the Benoit Group and Russell New Urban Development — for the Big Bethel AME Campus Project. The three entities will sign a memorandum of understanding during a news conference Tuesday at the corner of Auburn Avenue and Jesse Hill Jr. Drive in downtown Atlanta.
The $130 million-plus project would target university students and people who wish to live downtown.
“This positions us very well to be in the driver’s seat as to how we move forward to provide for our ministry,” said the Rev. John Foster, senior pastor of Big Bethel, which already owns the land. “People think of the ministry as what goes on at 7 a.m. and 11 a.m. Sunday morning, but our ministry is also what we can do the rest of the week. From that standpoint, what we can do Monday through Saturday is just as important as what we do on Sunday morning.”
That means providing housing options, he said, as well as creating jobs and commercial development. And that’ s where Big Bethel comes in. The urban church, he said, can play a key role in helping develop the surrounding community.
Foster said the idea for further development goes back about a decade and two pastors ago. But plans were sidetracked when the economy tanked. When he became pastor in 2013, the church’s leadership proposed “getting this back on track.”
Auburn Avenue, long known as “Sweet Auburn,” and Edgewood Avenue have seen a resurgence of sorts with the streetcar project that linked a 1.3-mile trek between Centennial Olympic Park and the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Site, plus additional retail and restaurants and a major investment by Georgia State University.
For decades, Auburn was a prominent thoroughfare for black professionals and businesses, but it experienced a steep decline as businesses and people moved to the suburbs. Development there has seen fits and starts but never quite gained momentum until recently.