Cambridge School buys former Charles Street church for its new campus

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Courtesy of MacKenzie Commercial

When the leaders of Brown Memorial Woodbrook Presbyterian Church disclosed a year ago that the church would merge with another congregation and sell its buildings on Charles Street, area residents were understandably concerned about what would happen to the property.

Would the church be torn down to make way for a housing subdivision? Offices? Or even sadder, a gas station and convenience store?After a flurry of bidding, it turns out the church won’t be torn down at all. Less than a year after it went on the market, the seven-acre parcel at 6200 N. Charles St. was purchased by the Cambridge School of Baltimore, which plans to use it as its new campus and lease the sanctuary for weekend worship services.

In many ways, the transaction’s outcome was the opposite of another recent real estate deal in Towson: the controversial land-use fight triggered by early plans for Towson Station, a proposed development that would have brought a gas station and Royal Farms store to the intersection of York Road and Bosley Avenue. After protests from area residents, the developers dropped the gas station component and agreed to pursue businesses that wouldn’t stay open 24 hours.

Cambridge, a 20-year-old private Christian-centered school that currently has about 120 students from kindergarten through eighth grade, prevailed over 11 other groups that expressed interest in buying the Woodbrook property.

Known for its small class sizes and classical approach to education, Cambridge completed the sale this summer and plans to move in within a year. It will be the third location for Cambridge, now located on part of the St. Charles Catholic Church property on Sudbrook Lane in Pikesville.

The sale includes two 1960s-era buildings and a 1994 sanctuary that was designed by Ziger/Snead Architects, as well as surface parking and open space that can be used for recreation.

Brown Memorial Woodbrook moved there in 1960 after breaking off from Brown Memorial Presbyterian Church in Bolton Hill. The 300-seat sanctuary is distinguished by a light, curving roof that rests on the brick base like a handkerchief that fluttered down from the sky.

Lisa Bond, director of advancement, said the school was outgrowing its current location and looking to own a building rather than continue renting. She said the directors were drawn to the amount of indoor and outdoor space and the central location, just north of the Baltimore City-County line. She said school officials are hopeful that the new location will appeal to families living on both sides.

“This will be the first property we’ve owned,” she said, noting it would increase the size of the school’s property from two acres to seven.

John Blumenstein, head of the school, said, “Everything that Cambridge does and stands for can happen more effectively at the new campus.”

The Rev. Tom Harris of Govans Presbyterian Church, which merged with Brown Memorial Woodbrook and now serves as home to the blended congregation, said church leaders are pleased with the outcome.

“Our church is very happy that the building will continue to be used for the education of children and worship,” he said.

In evaluating proposals, “it mostly came down to the highest bid,” he said. “But we were also trying to keep in mind the neighborhood.”

The sale price was $3.8 million, which left the church about $3.5 million after paying the sales commission and other expenses. Harris said Govans plans to use one quarter, or about $750,000, to support missionary work in Baltimore and beyond, and the rest to help maintain and improve the Govans property at 5828 York Rd.

While that stretch of Charles Street has a mix of uses, from gas stations to stores to upscale housing, Jim Grieves, a MacKenzie Commercial Real Estate Services vice president who represented the church, said it became clear early on that the most likely purchaser was a “user-buyer” who would be able to recycle the existing buildings rather than clear the site and build something else.

He noted that the existing DR1 zoning for the land allowed residential use or institutions such as a school or church. Under the current zoning, he said, the county would allow one residence per acre, for a total of seven.

If a developer wanted to build more houses or introduce commercial uses, he said, the property would need rezoning approval, and that could take months or might not come through at all. In addition, a buyer would have to add in the costs of demolition and site preparation for new construction.

The church also made clear that it didn’t want to upset residents of the surrounding area, including Woodbrook Lane. “The church was sensitive to the community,” Grieves said. “It’s been a good neighbor for years.”

Given those constraints, Grieves said, all of the bidders were parties that envisioned reusing the buildings already on the site. He declined to say exactly who made offers but said the list included churches, schools, athletic associations and investors who would lease the property to a church.

Cambridge was “a good use for the property, which was important to the church,” he added. “The property is ideal to serve as their campus and further compliments the surrounding community.”

The school has arranged to lease the sanctuary to Church One for weekly worship services starting later this fall, Bond said.

Before it moves in, the school is making some improvements to the campus, including upgraded mechanical systems for the 1960s-era buildings. Cambridge has launched a $1 million capital campaign to pay for the upgrades. Gaudreau Inc. is the architect working with the school, Bond said.

When it sold the property, Brown Memorial Woodbrook sold the organ separately, to a church in the midwest. Worshippers held a farewell concert for the instrument last summer.

Grieves said the absence of an organ didn’t seem to prevent church groups from expressing interest.

“A number of them said, ‘We’re not even sure we have anybody who knows how to play that,'” he said.

Ed Gunts

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