WOONSOCKET — The Zoning Board of Review unanimously approved a North Attleboro-based church’s application to establish a branch in a long-vacant building at Walnut Hill Plaza where the Mark Steven factory outlet used to operate.

Members of Waters Church, the owners of the Diamond Hill Road shopping center and Mayor Lisa Baldelli-Hunt were among those who packed Harris Hall to speak in favor of the plan, said Zoning Board Member Kathryn Dumais.

In an era in which retail expansion in the city’s preeminent merchandising district is slowing down, Dumais said she was pleased to see some interest representing an alternative use for a large unoccupied space in the shopping center.

“The people they’re paying rent to will still be paying the taxes, so it’s not like they’re buying the building and taking it off the tax rolls for a nonprofit use,” she said. “I thought that was a good idea. We have to build Woonsocket up. We have to get going.”

Six members of the zoning board all voted in favor of a joint application for a special use permit for the commercial site that was filed by Waters Church and Walnut Hill Holdings LLC. The latter is a division of Miami-based Lionheart Capital, which purchased the roughly 230,000-square-foot shopping center in a $5.7 million deal in June 2018.

A Bible-based Christian organization, Waters Church plans on holding Sunday services in the building, and possibly a mid-week Bible-studies class, after renovating the interior of the structure.

In past lives, the 10,000-square-foot site at Walnut Hill Plaza had not only housed the old Mark Steven factory store, but a multiplex cinema. The church will use only the lower level of the site, located in the southeastern corner of the rambling strip mall.

About the only question that arose for zoners was how the church might affect the sales of alcoholic beverages for other merchants who already operate nearby or who may want to in the future. A state law prohibits the sales of alcohol within 200 feet of a church or school. The law has received substantial attention from city officials of late after downtown business boosters expressed concerns that it was tamping down investment options from restaurateurs and other purveyors of the nightlife economy in the Main Street area.

Zoners acknowledged that Brunswick Bowl, which is located in the plaza and belongs to Walnut Hill Holdings, maintains a full-privilege liquor permit that is grandfathered in. But if the owners of the plaza or another property owner nearby attracts a tenant that wants to serve alcoholic beverage, the vendors might have to seek a waiver from the prohibition zone from the General Assembly.

Waters Church is a non-denominational Christian congregation that’s managed to keep growing by delivering a traditional message with contemporary flair. It operates a number of ancillary programs offering after-school enrichment and religious studies for youth.

Waters Church is an offshoot of a much larger worship group that operates out of another site in North Attleboro that wasn’t originally built as a church. It offers services in a modified industrial building of more than 100,000 square feet, located at 57 John Dietsch Square. The site hosts weekly worship services for some 1,500 church members a week.

The flock that’s about to land at the shopping center has already been worshiping in the city for more than a year – from leased space at Woonsocket Middle School.

The church is one of the first new tenants Lionheart has managed to land for Walnut Hill Plaza since it acquired the struggling plaza last year. More than half of the shopping center’s 29 storefront “pads” are vacant, including the roughly 60,000-square-foot shell of the former Sears store that closed its doors in 2017. The dominant anchors of the plaza – one of two major shopping centers on Diamond Hill Road – are Aero Trampoline and Planet Fitness.

On its application for the special use permit, Walnut Hill Holdings said the old Mark Steven store had never been particularly suitable for retail use.

“The proposed church would occupy a portion of the premises in the lower level on the easterly side of the plaza, which is not suitable, nor has been historically suitable, for the conduct of major retail trade and services to the general public,” the application says.

Shane Parsons, the executive pastor of Waters Church, could not be reached for comment on this story.

Follow Russ Olivo on Twitter @russolivo

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