After decades of uncertainty, the sanctuary at First United Methodist Church will be saved, its buyer said Monday. More than 250 people...

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After decades of uncertainty, the sanctuary at First United Methodist Church will be saved, its buyer said Monday.

More than 250 people attended a Sunday church meeting, when members unanimously approved a deal to sell the property at 811 Fifth Ave., said Kevin Daniels, president of Nitze-Stagen & Co., a developer of commercial properties with historical value.

Nitze-Stagen plans to demolish the church annex south of the sanctuary — but keep the sanctuary — and erect a 40-story tower with about 670,000 square feet, Daniels said.

The developer is buying a replacement site for the congregation, and the National Trust for Historic Preservation has pledged $1 million for the deal. He said more details about the transaction will be released May 30.

Daniels, who sat in on the meeting before the vote, said the congregation’s approval was required to complete the complex cash-and-land transaction, negotiated over the past nine months.

Messages left for the Rev. Kathlyn James, the church’s senior pastor, weren’t returned Monday.

Kurt Armbruster, co-chair of the church’s Building Advisory Board, said the agreement is a “three-way win” for the church, the developer and the local historic-preservation community.

Trust for Historic Preservation

The Washington Trust for Historic Preservation plans to announce this morning its annual list of Most Endangered Historic Properties in the state. The trust plans to hold its news conference in front of the Seventh Church of Christ, Scientist, at 2555 Eighth Ave. W. in Queen Anne.

“There was a period when we were in opposite sides … But we found a way to listen to each other and found a solution that worked well,” Armbruster said. “I walked away from the process impressed with our local political leaders, and I didn’t expect to.”

Metropolitan King County Councilman Dow Constantine, who favored preservation of the sanctuary, pushed the parties to compromise, Daniels said.

In recent years the sanctuary seemed to inch closer to demolition as efforts to save it went nowhere.

The congregation put its downtown property up for sale because the costs of repairing and maintaining the sanctuary consumed cash it needs to support its ministry to the homeless. Church members also say the sanctuary is too large for their needs.

In 2004 preservationists appealed the city’s approval of a master-use permit for the construction of an office tower on the site of the nearly century-old, Beaux Arts-style sanctuary.

Constantine brought in Daniels, who offered the congregation nearly $24 million, which included funds for buying property in Belltown.

Constantine said he was glad the parties came up with a win-win arrangement, despite the financial difficulties facing urban churches.

“Demolition is not the only answer,” he said. “The First Methodist example shows there is more than one way a congregation and its mission can be well served while these architectural gems can be preserved.”

After the city designated the sanctuary a landmark in 1985, First United won a state Supreme Court decision in 1996 that declared all religious buildings exempt from landmark status. The decision has had broad repercussions, giving a financial boon to struggling congregations and frustrating preservationists.

Daniels has a passion for rehabilitating historic structures. Among other projects, his firm redeveloped the old Sears catalog building, now Starbucks’ headquarters, and the old Union Station railroad terminal, now an office building.

“This is the last historical church in downtown and the central business district. It’s celebrating its 100th anniversary this year,” Daniels said. “Sometimes the things that are the right thing to do are the toughest.”

The church is in talks to secure a Belltown property for its new sanctuary, but Armbruster said he couldn’t disclose its exact location.

The church hopes to start construction on the new sanctuary by September 2008 and move into the new location about a year later.

Armbruster said the new sanctuary will be smaller and better suited for worship in this century, whereas the old sanctuary was built for worship in the 19th century.

“The old sanctuary was a very lovely structure but it has an emotional distance built in,” he said. He hopes a new sanctuary will help worship become a more “inclusive experience.”

Times staff reporter Brian Alexander contributed to this story.

Sanjay Bhatt: 206-464-3103 or