Board votes to protect historic German church

February 3, 2010
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The Metropolitan Development Commission has approved an emergency motion to protect a 1914 church at the northeast corner of Washington Street and German Church Road. The congregation of St. John United Church of Christ had been working on plans to build a new church on Carroll Road and struck a deal to sell the old one, historically known as Deutsche Evangelische-St Johannes Kirche, to a developer who planned to demolish the building. But in October the Historic Landmarks Foundation of Indiana applied to the Indianapolis Historic Preservation Commission seeking an emergency historic designation to save it. IHPC supported the request, and sent it along to the MDC.

There still is a risk the church could be torn down if members of the congregation are successful in a legal challenge, or if state legislators pass a bill inspired in part by the church controversy. State Sen. Pat Miller introduced SB 177 to punish IHPC and strip the group of much of its authority to regulate changes to buildings in historic districts. The bill has drawn broad criticism from historic groups and residents in historic neighborhoods, who decry the legislature's meddling in a local issue and the potential hit it could deal to property values. Residents of such districts have to overwhelmingly approve the designations and the stringent requirements that accompany them. They also point to IHPC's denial rate of only 1 percent over more than 30 years.

More coverage of SB 177 is available at the blog Circles and Squares. An earlier post on the church issue is here.

  • It's time for healing
    It's unfortunate that this had to happen this way. It was very divisive for the community and the church members.

    For ten years, the Town of Cumberland has asked the Church to participate with the community in town planning. For ten years the church has turned a deaf ear.

    I would hope that the Church can take a seat at the table and some healing can begin soon.
  • MIA
    And Where is Mayor Ballard in all of this?!?

    The City of Indianapolis has a lot to lose if SB 177 passes.

    He needs to call in some favors in the Legislature or he can kiss goodbye one of the most effective tools for attracting private investment that the city has.

    The Cultural Trial will be finished just in time for a McDonald's to go in Lockerbie Square.
  • why would the legislature think this is a good idea? Not only would it gut our historic districts (think cvs's and walgreens througout our historic districts). Really bad idea. i doubt it will get any traction, but contact your legislator to tell them they are guaranteed to be hitting the pavement if they vote for this.
    • Good
      I am glad this has been saved. The Cumberland District has very few intact historical structures along Washington and it would have been a shame to see this go.

      As for Senator Miller, how does this person continue to be elected? She does not have a clue!
    • We Need Some Leadership from the Mayor!
      Nancy has a good question:

      Where is the Mayor?

      Republican Mayors have supported the IHPC for 35 years and now this Mayor will have this as his legacy - that it was destroyed on his watch.
    • Traction
      It passed the Senate. It has traction. Lets hope the House ignores it.
    • Different Method of Preservation
      Properly done, historic preservation is the prudent thing to do for some properties and neighborhoods, for it will maintain some of the character of the building or neighborhood while reviving some beneficial/profitable land uses that had fallen into decay.
      My issue is with the manner in which this is done and the shifting of burden onto people who did not ask for it and sometimes are the least able to support it. The historic preservation movement is built on the idea that it is OK to keep a property owner from modifying its property if others, the historic preservation people, determine that they want the property kept the same as it has been for years, or perhaps returned to the way it used to be 50 or so years ago. This imposes someone else's will on an innocent property owner.
      There are other ways to accomplish historic preservation without forcing insolvency on unwilling or unable property owners, such as the congregation of German Church. For instance, the historic preservation proponents could purchase the property outright at the same price as another purchaser would have paid (or fair market value, if lower), and then keep it up in the manner that they would have imposed on the original owner. This would be virtually identical to a condemnation, except that the property owner would initiate the proceeding by requesting a permit for modification that the IHPC determines in inappropriate. Or, in situations where the historic structure is seriously beyond its economic life, perhaps the preservation people could fund the amount that is required to refurbish the historic structure so that it can be maintained by the current owner instead of being lost in a tax sale or foreclosure. If, how, and when the owner would repay those advances would be the subject of individual negotiations. Another advantage of the incentive approach would be that historically significant properties would be less likely to sit idle and ugly for years, or decades, while the ownership slowing dies due to lack of funding for renovations.
      There are various existing foundations and government programs to assist in this regard, but they are not funded adequately to handle all of the properties that would need funding pursuant to the above proposals; however, that does mean that heavy-handed intervention into private transactions with the singular goal of preventing that transaction is at all appropriate, either.
      One would think that historic preservation would be a conservative issue for it seeks to maintain the status quo; but, the singular use of governmental regulations and restrictions, as opposed to incentives, instead makes it a liberal issue. That could change if financial incentives or safeguards were in place to shift the burden of historic preservation off of the backs of the property owners and onto the backs of those who most vehemently support historic preservation.
      Suffice to say, purchasing a property in an historic district, or owning a structure such as the German Church that might at the last minute be drawn into the morass of one-sided restrictions and regulations that we know as "historic preservation," is something to be approached with great caution by any current of prospective property owner.
      • John Doe has no clue

        You clearly have no clue, do you?

        Here's the thing: In order for a conservation/preservation district to happen at all, it must have the 70% of the property owners vote on it. In addition, the same group must then decide on what the regulations are going to be.

        It takes 3-4 years to make that happen. It's not a matter of "government regulation" neither is it pushing it onto people who don't want it. It is very much about a neighborhood having self-determination.

        Property values are higher in a historic district because of the enforcement of the historic plan. I have a hard time with hearing all the stuff about financial burden: 15 years after I purchased it, my home is worth about 50% of what I paid for it. Let's talk about financial burden!

        Note: Suburban developments have mandatory homeowners' associations, mandatory fees and much more strict regulations that are covenants on the deed. Again, I don't see anyone pushing through legislation to "fix" that. Imagine the uproar from wealthy homeowners if that were to happen!

        The church was a different issue - it was an emergency designation. Nobody was happy about that - but the church has a great deal of responsibility for the situation. The town really did go out of their way for 10 years to try to engage the church leaders.

        What I saw at the hearing was that the church was quite proud of their insular attitude and divisiveness. The truth is that they are part of a community and the community was not only concerned about the building. There are generations of families still in the area that were angry about the actions the church has taken - and most of them are extremely conservative politically.

        I also feel an institution that hasn't paid taxes for almost a hundred years has a responsibility to be a little more engaged with the community.

        Again, nobody was happy about that situation - but the church leadership needs to take some responsibility.
        • Pat Miller's motivation
          Miller gets a nice chunk of money every year from PACs like the Indiana Pharmacists Action Committee and Community Pharmacies of Indiana Inc PAC.
        • Responsible Decision
          I suppport the MDC's decision and believe it is keeping with the Conservation District's intent for Cumberland. The conservation district is a special designation which has already began to play out nicely with the National Road corridor improvements. This landmark is important to the community, regardless of its intended use and future use. There is wisdom in this decision and the community needs to trust. We must work together to preserve that which came before us in an effort to preserve History!
        • Local Control
          First, Cory deserves kudos for tracking this story. This is a great church in my old childhood neighborhood and I have fond memories of it. I love that this story is encouraging such a healthy debate and the various opinions and anecdotes are educational.

          Second, because I have some experience in the field, I feel compelled to clarify some things that have been said. For example, Ã?Æ?Ã?¢Ã?¢ââ?¬Å¡Ã?¬Ã?â?¦Ã¢â?¬Å?zoning attorneyÃ?Æ?Ã?¢Ã?¢ââ?¬Å¡Ã?¬Ã?â??Ã?Â? wrote some thoughtful comments, with which I agreed, but also some allegations that werenÃ?Æ?Ã?¢Ã?¢ââ?¬Å¡Ã?¬Ã?¢ââ?¬Å¾Ã?¢t accurate. ZAÃ?Æ?Ã?¢Ã?¢ââ?¬Å¡Ã?¬Ã?¢ââ?¬Å¾Ã?¢s post almost sounded much like a scare tactic to attract business from terrified property owners, specifically those unfamiliar with Ã?Æ?Ã?¢Ã?¢ââ?¬Å¡Ã?¬Ã?â?¦Ã¢â?¬Å?the morass of one-sided restrictions and regulations that we know as "historic preservation,Ã?Æ?Ã?¢Ã?¢ââ?¬Å¡Ã?¬Ã?â??Ã?Â?Ã?Æ?Ã?¢Ã?¢ââ?¬Å¡Ã?¬Ã?â??Ã?Â? which I have a problem with.

          Most people should already know that historic preservation commissions do not require property owners to return buildings Ã?Æ?Ã?¢Ã?¢ââ?¬Å¡Ã?¬Ã?â?¦Ã¢â?¬Å?to the way it used to be 50 or so years ago.Ã?Æ?Ã?¢Ã?¢ââ?¬Å¡Ã?¬Ã?â??Ã?Â? Property owners are never forced to do anything. Instead, they can sometimes be PREVENTED from doing some things that would negatively impact the historic character of the building or area. So the assertion that historic preservation Ã?Æ?Ã?¢Ã?¢ââ?¬Å¡Ã?¬Ã?â?¦Ã¢â?¬Å?imposes someone else's will on an innocent property ownerÃ?Æ?Ã?¢Ã?¢ââ?¬Å¡Ã?¬Ã?â??Ã?Â? is 100% false. The law prevents a property owner from imposing his/her will on an innocent neighborhood. Anyone choosing to buy property within any urban/suburban area with zoning restrictions is automatically on notice that he/she cannot do whatever he/she wants. In the big city, a property owner has some duty, limited as it is, to not harm the community; our laws ensure this.

          I laughed at, Ã?Æ?Ã?¢Ã?¢ââ?¬Å¡Ã?¬Ã?â?¦Ã¢â?¬Å?(T)hat does mean that heavy-handed intervention into private transactions with the singular goal of preventing that transaction is at all appropriate, either.Ã?Æ?Ã?¢Ã?¢ââ?¬Å¡Ã?¬Ã?â??Ã?Â? The MDCÃ?Æ?Ã?¢Ã?¢ââ?¬Å¡Ã?¬Ã?¢ââ?¬Å¾Ã?¢s only goal here was to prevent demolition, and only when the property owner forced its hand. No one is stopping CVS from purchasing a church. I have experienced a few Ã?Æ?Ã?¢Ã?¢ââ?¬Å¡Ã?¬Ã?â?¦Ã¢â?¬Å?emergency designationsÃ?Æ?Ã?¢Ã?¢ââ?¬Å¡Ã?¬Ã?â??Ã?Â? over the years and I know first-hand that the MDC, IHPC and Historic Landmarks Foundation of Indiana all cringe at the thought. They donÃ?Æ?Ã?¢Ã?¢ââ?¬Å¡Ã?¬Ã?¢ââ?¬Å¾Ã?¢t even like to whisper it. ItÃ?Æ?Ã?¢Ã?¢ââ?¬Å¡Ã?¬Ã?¢ââ?¬Å¾Ã?¢s an enormous amount of work and it vilifies the very politician(s) and boards that appointed the appointees. But sometimes, the last option becomes the only option, especially when the property owner becomes belligerent and/or unreasonable.

          Most alarming though was this statement: Ã?Æ?Ã?¢Ã?¢ââ?¬Å¡Ã?¬Ã?â?¦Ã¢â?¬Å?One would think that historic preservation would be a conservative issue . . . but, the singular use of governmental regulations and restrictions, as opposed to incentives, instead makes it a liberal issue.Ã?Æ?Ã?¢Ã?¢ââ?¬Å¡Ã?¬Ã?â??Ã?Â? This sounds like the kind of partisan thing one expects to hear on AM radio talk shows, not in the IBJÃ?Æ?Ã?¢Ã?¢ââ?¬Å¡Ã?¬Ã?¢ââ?¬Å¾Ã?¢s Property Lines blog. Again, it makes zero sense. Maintaining the character of a neighborhood is absolutely conservative by nature, just as adding incentives to encourage behavior is absolutely liberal. But, for the record, there is absolutely NOTHING partisan about historic preservation. Historic preservation is one of the very few things that draws people from each end of the political spectrum. Observe the roster of personalities comprising the IHPC, or the RSVP list of the galas hosted by HLFI throughout the state. Preservation is apolitical.

          Finally, this was not a Ã?Æ?Ã?¢Ã?¢ââ?¬Å¡Ã?¬Ã?â?¦Ã¢â?¬Å?takingÃ?Æ?Ã?¢Ã?¢ââ?¬Å¡Ã?¬Ã?â??Ã?Â? by the government. The church property is zoned for religious uses, and the city is not preventing the owner from selling to another congregation. The US Supreme Court said that historic preservation laws were constitutional when it upheld the 1965 New York City Landmarks Law in the now-famous Grand Central Terminal case (see Penn Central Transportation Co. v. New York City, 438 U.S. 104). You can use your property for whatever it has been used for in the past. The trick comes when you want to change it into something that is expressly not allowed Ã?Æ?Ã?¢Ã?¢ââ?¬Å¡Ã?¬Ã?¢ââ??¬Ã?â?? like in this case. When bad things happen to good neighborhoods, property values fall and the property owners are the ones hurt most. This was no taking; this was local government using local control to protect its citizens. I only wish State Senator Pat Miller was more educated on the topic.
        • St. John's Side
          To all you who like to Drive By the beautiful church I hope you have a great big checkbook balance and can contribute to the million dollars worth of maintenance that is coming in the near future. The St. John UCC congregation, like all mainline churches, has seen a decline in membersip. 360 people do not have the resources to maintain this type of facility, nor do they have the resources to attract new young families. The building would never pass inspection for a day care facility, and does not have adequate restroom facilities. The kitchen is in dire need of major updates, and the building overall is impossible to maintain. All the historic preservation commission did was make it harder - with no offer of financial assistance. The Church did not and does not have a buyer. The town of Cumberland is a pig sty. Drive by the historic church property and spend a night at the lovely Admiral, then tell me how historic and lovely cumberland is. They did way too little too late. Cumberland will never be more than an ugly spot on 40. The new Walgreen's is one of the better buildings in Cumberland. By the way, what did the town tear down to build the new Town Hall? Was it historic? Why did you need a new building - did the old one not meet your needs? If cumberland wants the church building it should buy the building and maintain it. The Church is the congration, not the building.
        • You don't have a clue
          Cumberland did nothing to assist STJ UCC. Never have they done anything other than to dream about being the next Zionsville. The Town Council was very underhanded in their operation. The emergency designation was a sham and they know it. If the town council had done their job over the years they wouldn't have to scramble to "preserve" anything. They allowed their town to steadily do downhill. The streetscape they claim to be working on did nothing but bring 40 up to the front door of every building in cumberland. I'm sure people are dying to get a chance to operate a business out of those places. What has the town done to attract business or restaurants? Nothing. The Walgreen's building is at least clean and attractive, that's more than I can say for a lot of the other buildings in the town. Within 2 blocks of the church you could buy drugs, run into a sex offender at the Admiral, or get shot at the public housing. If the town has that much interest in preserving the church building, they should buy it and conduct their business out of the historically preserved "gateway" to Cumberland.
        • They Have Bigger Issues.
          First, I'm glad to hear the church will, whether it is fair to anyone involved or not.

          However, in fairness to them, they are surrounded by absolutely total garbage - and this is the town's fault.

          A crappy big-box traffic sewer still sucks even if you throw up nostalgic street lamps.
        • Did You Learn Your Attitude In Church?
          Gee, your nasty attitude makes your church seem exactly like the type of congregation I would NOT want to join. Also, you might want to get your facts straight, U.S. 40's widening is a STATE project and as originally proposed by the state, the road was going to be EVEN wider AND take out some buildings along the road. Cumberland worked very hard to get the widening reduced and to get some decent landscaping-you should be grateful for the town's efforts. Also, you claim the congregation (note: this is how you spell the word) is "the people, not the building," well, the people are apart of the community and they should start acting like it. The building is an important part of the history and culture of the town, and it is worth preserving, not throwing on the trash heap, just because some people think they are too good to help out the community they belong to.
        • Chris has it right
          Chris is right - US 40 is a State project and it took years (10, that I know of) to reshape the project to what you are seeing now.

          BTW: Pat Miller fought that as well. You really would have seen a much wider road going through town. And without any landscaping, sidewalks, lights or parks.

          I love the folks who stand on the sidelines and throw stones - and refuse to get involved.

          Really, if the folks at the church are so bothered by the low-income housing, why don't they consider a little outreach? Isn't that what Jesus did? When you actually open your door to the community in which you live, you find out that there are some great people who live there. You also find out how you can help- in very real ways. It's so much more satisfying than throwing stones at the people who are doing good things. And I'd bet that God looks a little more kindly on it also.
        • Very Sad
          It's very sad that people who should be loving and helping to redeem their community seem to be bashing it and disregarding their neighbors feelings. I used to drive by that church a lot when I was a kid and still do from time to time. It made me very sad to learn that that beautiful building was going to be dozed for a convenience store. I can't imagine what residents of the community must have felt. Did the church leadership ever look for creative solutions to sell the building to the community, another church or different group that could reuse it?
        • Disheartened
          I'm disheartened that some seem to think that whether or not people are receptive to the message of Christ depends on a building. Moving out of the city and building a big, new facility with lots of modern amenities is not going to enhance the message of the gospel. That message is strong enough to stand on its own merit and doesn't require bells and whistles.

          Additionally, Christ encouraged His followers to be good stewards. This congregation has been blessed with a beautiful building that inspires awe in many who see it. Why not be a good steward of this building instead of showing apathy towards its demise? Why not embrace the surrounding community instead of belittling it with harsh words?

          I am a young professional who attends a church that doesn't even have a building; only a rented space that must be set up and torn down weekly. I choose to attend my church for the message that is proclaimed and the fellowship I receive there. It is a poor excuse to claim that a building is keeping a congregation from growth.

          I'm proud of my city for designating this structure as historic and protecting it so future generations can be inspired by something more than a CVS.

          If the congregation feels they MUST move, it is not unreasonable to think another congregation would be interested in its location. Maintenance is a very valid concern, but with creative solutions, rehabilitation is certainly possible. Other historic churches in designated districts downtown have faced similar challenges; it may be wise to approach those congregations to learn how they've dealt with maintenance issues. Repair is very often less expensive than replacement and/or new construction when you deal with the right contractors. Check out this website for additional resources, including outreach, fundraising ideas, and maintenance tips:
        • Work Together
          True, INDOT tries to make us do all sorts of things that are terrible and ruin our communities.

          That said, local areas in general, not just Cumberland are too complicit in accepting highway standards in important areas because they fear losing state dollars.

          I don't know if this is Cumberland's situation. I do know they are ending up with super wide lanes with no destinations, no reason to walk anywhere, and lots of window dressing.

          Its a problem a lot of places face, even with super dedicated hard-working people involved to help. Somehow, local communities need a bigger voice with INDOT and its not happening. People have bemoaned the problem of suburban roadway thinking for decades and yet it is still hurting us. How do we make change!!! We MUST have a voice within INDOT or else we're screwed.
        • Home Insurance
          What I saw at the hearing was that the church was quite proud of their insular attitude and divisiveness. The truth is that they are part of a community and the community was not only concerned about the building.

          Home Insurance

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