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Historic church once again target of demolition

February 6, 2015

Local preservationists again are rallying to save from the wrecking ball a 101-year-old church on the city’s far-east side.

Pittsburgh-based grocer Giant Eagle has an agreement with leaders of the St. John United Church of Christ to buy the property at the northeast corner of Washington Street and German Church Road.

Giant Eagle wants to demolish the church and build a convenience store and gas station on the 4.8-acre site, which has led preservationists to mount the latest campaign to save the building.

The “Save German Church” Facebook page that they launched Thursday already has attracted nearly 2,800 likes.

“It’s sort of a gateway property to the small town of Cumberland,” said Mark Dollase, Indiana Landmarks’ vice president of preservation services. “It’s kind of their symbol of their community, if you will.”

Cumberland straddles Hancock and Marion counties. Under Unigov, the city of Indianapolis has jurisdiction over Cumberland zoning issues in Marion County.

The Metropolitan Development Commission’s hearing examiner on Feb. 12 is set to consider Giant Eagle’s request to rezone the land to make way for the 6,100-square-foot gas station and convenience store.

Giant Eagle operates the GetGo convenience stores in addition to its self-named supermarket brand. The company is building a grocery at The Bridges development in Carmel.

Meantime, the town of Cumberland wants to save the church and has started exploring the possibility of purchasing the land itself. What Giant Eagle is proposing doesn’t jibe with Cumberland’s comprehensive plan, Town Manager Andrew Klinger told IBJ on Friday.

The town prefers a more pedestrian-friendly, mixed-use development to complement Indianapolis’ mass-transit plans. The proposed 24-mile, east-west blue line would span from Cumberland to Indianapolis International Airport.

A craft brewery, business incubator or event center are a few of the uses the town has considered.

“We’re looking for more transit-oriented development,” Klinger said, “and this is an auto-related use that flies in the face of that.”

The issue for the church is about survival, Rev. Jimmy Watson said.

“We simply need a renovation that would cost hundreds of thousands of dollars and we literally have 40 people in church. The people who are complaining about it just drive by, they don’t attend here.”

If the church can sell the property, it plans to build at the northwest corner of East Prospect Street and Carroll Road, where the church owns 50 acres. A family in the 1970s donated the land to the church, which has leased it to a farmer since, Watson said.

Sources say the listing price on the church site is $1.8 million. A representative of Giant Eagle referred questions about the property to church leadership, adding: "We continue to work collaboratively with the St. John’s United Church of Christ leadership and city officials to evaluate this potential location, and look forward to the upcoming February 12 zoning hearing."

Church officials have been shopping the property for years and want to use the funds to build a new place of worship to blunt declining membership.

In 2010, it had an agreement with the former Gershman Brown Crowley developer to build a CVS. But the city of Indianapolis stepped in to protect the church by granting it landmark status.

The church, in turn, filed a federal lawsuit saying the designation by the city’s Historic Preservation Commission violated their constitutional rights to freely exercise their religion.

The lawsuit was settled in 2011 when the church agreed to give the preservation group Indiana Landmarks six months to find a buyer that would save the building. The city rescinded the designation, according to the terms of the settlement, when it couldn’t find a buyer.

“I feel for them from the standpoint that they want to move to another facility,” Dollase said of the congregation. “But on the other hand, there’s a broader community interest here, and that also has to be taken into consideration.”

For about a century, the land has been the site of the Tudor Gothic Revival-style church once known as Deutsche Evangelische St. Johannes Kirche.

It opened in 1855, initially serving German immigrants who farmed the surrounding area. That structure was replaced later that century, and the current building opened in 1914.

Correction: Due to an editor's error, an earlier version of this story incorrectly implied that inclusion in the National Register of Historic Places could protect the church from demolition.

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