The focal point of ACAC’s $9.4 million redesign is “Friendship Hub,” an “interconnected lobby for the Northside.” Renovations are expected to be complete by 2021.

By Ashlee Green

Standing on a green star spray painted in the middle of the parking lot of Allegheny Center Alliance Church (ACAC), I’m beginning to understand the vision Pastor Ken Turnbull has for a new, simplified physical layout for his congregation.

The star marks the center of a proposed 30,000-square-foot “Friendship Hub,” the focal point of a three-year, $9.4 million “campus redesign,” or major revamp of the church grounds.

Friendship Hub is set to be a centralized, open, public space with a welcome desk, restrooms, play space for children and comfortable seating area.
Turnbull describes it as an “interconnected lobby for the Northside.” He sees it like an airport terminal, a “You Are Here” sticker on a map, where guests can enter, see all of their options and easily select where on campus they want to go next. The hub will connect all of the church’s buildings, providing indoor access between them.

“It has to be right twice,” Turnbull says of the redesign. Once, for the church services taking place on Sundays and again, for community groups using the space the other six days of the week. The church’s streamlined, community-driven design goals are a nod to those of the late Christina Arbuckle, a longtime member of the former First United Presbyterian Church of Allegheny, now ACAC, who along with her sister, Martha, funded the construction of a five-story “community house,” which is now the current “Union Place.”

“As the Northside, we haven’t had a history of working together, but that’s rapidly shifting,” says Turnbull. According to him, the neighborhood used to be made up of various competing churches, and Christina Arbuckle dreamed of creating a “wholesome, connective spot” where everyone could come together. Her “community house,” he says, was split 50-50: half of it was noisy and used for athletics, while the other half was a quiet meeting place for local socialites. The rooftop was a children’s playground and it’s lower floor, “Fellowship Hall,” included a doctor’s office, pharmacy, milk room and “friendship room” for gathering and socializing. The building also had immigrant housing and a bowling alley, running track, gymnasium and swimming pool.

According to John Canning, Vice President of the Allegheny City Society, Christina Arbuckle was the sister of John Arbuckle, who made fortunes selling roasted coffee beans with his brother across the country. Though their coffee business was based in New York City, the Arbuckle family had roots in Allegheny City. When John Arbuckle died, he left a large estate to his
sisters, Martha and Christina Arbuckle. Christina Arbuckle moved from her then-home in Brooklyn to the Allegheny City estate, a large mansion on
Sherman Avenue that faced Allegheny Commons Park, and quickly became a
major player in the church.

ACAC bought its “Union Place” building 14 year ago. Union Place is just one part of the church’s complex network of buildings and parking lots, which can make the campus difficult to navigate. The sheer number of programs the church is involved in, including two concurrent summer camps, a summer theater program, ballet classes and a jazz band, all organized by Urban Impact, a faith-based nonprofit for children and families in the Northside, add to the complexity. This year’s summer camp consisted of about 400 kids, and that number, according to Turnbull, could easily grow. The church also offers an after school program for children, counseling for grief, divorce, abuse and addiction, workshops on home buying, support for people recently released from jail, financial assistance for people who can’t afford their utility bills and both English language classes and legal assistance for immigrants.

“We create space for people to find out which door they’re most comfortable using to come into a community,” says Turnbull.

He admits it would be cheaper for ACAC to move and expand into the suburbs, but would rather see the church develop its existing role in the Northside community. After all, the ACAC stewards most of the electricity necessary to power the Deutschtown Music Festival stages. For this year’s festival, ACAC even had its own “gospel stage.” With the campus renovation, Turnbull also wants to make the space more cohesive, especially for ACAC’s children’s ministry.

Since 2004, the majority of ACAC’s children’s activities have taken place on the third floor of 4 Allegheny Center, an Allegheny Health Network (AHN) building, separated from the rest of the church campus by the busy East Commons road. But now, AHN needs the floor back for its medical staff. Turnbull calls the eviction a “gift.” As it stands, ACAC has to pay a crossing guard to help kids navigate East Commons and parents dropping their kids off at the AHN building have to park, then sign in and out. The proposed campus design, Turnbull says, will fix these problems, and is a way for ACAC to “bring our children home,” or have all the kids in the same space.

The remaining part of ACAC’s children’s ministry—the nurseries and
toddler rooms—is housed on the lower level of the main church building.
“Once we built this, the crying really stopped off,” says Turnbull with a laugh. He’s talking about the main room here, an interactive, indoor playground, complete with a chalkboard, slide, plush palm trees and play mats that can be easily rearranged. Children’s safety is important to ACAC, so this lower level of the campus includes multiple gates and locks between rooms and one-sided windows so parents and leaders can see inside the rooms without being a distraction. It’s design elements like these that Turnbull says ACAC wants to build on during its renovation.

So far, the ACAC congregation has pledged $7 million towards the campus redesign project, which is just one component of its large-scale “Next Gen Faith Campaign.” According to the website, ACAC’s campaign will help “prepare the next generation of ministry” through expanded communication and social media presence and “church planting” in Homestead and other urban areas. As the church moves toward the “design” phase of its three-year plan, and if all goes well, work will be complete by 2021.

With such an elaborate plan in the works, and ACAC’s continual wheelhouse of programs and other moving parts, I’m left to wonder how Turnbull manages it all with grace. He just laughs and responds: “That’s the Jesus answer.”
For more information on ACAC’s campus redesign project and the “Next Gen Faith Campaign,” visit the ACAC website at www.acac.net or stop by the campus, located at 250 East Ohio Street, and ask Turnbull for a tour.