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Church ‘unequivocally’ bets on San Francisco, buys $12M building

Ben Pilgreen, founder and lead pastor of Epic Church, poses in front of the organization’s new location at 414 Brannan St. | Source: Kevin Truong/The Standard

While some religious institutions in San Francisco are moving heaven and earth to find other uses for their properties, Epic Church's purchase of 414 Brannan St. for a new house of worship bucks conventional wisdom.

Buying a commercial property in SoMa amid the string of bad news facing Downtown already seems risky amid recent news about distressed properties selling at deep discounts

That's before factoring in skepticism about whether San Francisco is a good place for a church.

But Ben Pilgreen, founder and lead pastor of Epic, has spent more than a decade swimming against the current. He sees the $12 million purchase and $5 million-plus planned renovation as a long-term financial and spiritual investment in his adopted home.

"Somebody asked me, 'Are you betting on the future of the city?'" Pilgreen said. "Our answer with this is unequivocally yes. Strong faith community in the city matters."

Some of the planned improvements include new furnishings, offices for staff, building out the new worship auditorium, installing audio and video systems and designating an entire floor for youth programming and kid-friendly activities.

Despite permit headaches leading to construction delays, the hope is to wrap up the project by next fall at the latest.

"It would be great to get help to build up this community," Pilgreen said.

In 2010, Pilgreen experienced a calling to open a church in San Francisco. His family sold their house in Missouri and packed up a moving truck bound for the West Coast with the idea of starting a church in the city with a handful of other families.

Ever since, the house of worship has been rooted in SoMa, starting first in a temporary space in a room of the W Hotel before migrating to a 6,000-square-foot space on Howard Street and finally to its current location at 250 Stevenson St., in a basement room that was previously used to store trash.

The new location would nearly double the space available for Epic's congregation and the church's staff of 15 full-time and part-time employees. For the first time, it will also have a window.

The church's leadership started raising money for a new location in late 2019.

But then the pandemic hit. Attendance has gradually risen since in-person services reopened, but Pilgreen said numbers are still only around 80% of pre-pandemic levels.

Even with those challenges, churchgoers continue to donate to support a permanent home for their congregation. Pilgreen said $9 million has been pledged.

The church is taking a page from the tech workers who make up a portion of its congregation. It’s taking equity and cryptocurrency donations from church members, for example, which have in some cases proved lucrative.

Even before the pandemic, roughly 20% of Epic’s congregation would roll over every year, a testament to the transitory nature of much of San Francisco's young population.

But by creating a permanent spiritual base of operations, Pilgreen hopes the church can build a foundation for a longer-term investment in the city his family has called home for more than a decade.

One Sunday in February, Pilgreen did something he had never done before. He said, “I asked the congregation to pray about and consider staying here for at least the next five years."