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EDITORIAL: Bid to save church can’t go on forever

March 7, 2015

Historic buildings add character and texture to neighborhoods and remind us of our past. Among those structures is the Tudor Gothic Revival church once known as Deutsche Evangelische St. Johannes Kirche, at the northeast corner of Washington Street and German Church Road. The church gave the street its name and the neighborhood its identity.

The building has stood for more than a century, and no reasonable person would cheer its demise. But after more than five years in limbo—with one attempt after another failing to find a preservation-minded buyer—its owner, St. John United Church of Christ, should be allowed to exercise its right to sell the property it owns, even if the buyer plans to tear it down.

The small congregation, which lacks the resources to keep up the old building, plans to build a smaller chapel at East Prospect Street and Carroll Road. It first tried to sell the building in 2010, but the deal fell through after the city of Indianapolis designated the property a historic landmark.

The church sued over the move, and in a 2011 settlement, the historic status was rescinded. Still, the preservation group Indiana Landmarks wound up with six months to recruit a buyer to save the building.

No one has stepped up to buy or preserve the church, and the current owners say it already needs $750,000 in repairs. So the church reached another agreement to sell—this time to Pittsburgh-based grocer Giant Eagle, which wants to build a gas station and convenience store on the roughly five-acre site.

But now the town of Cumberland has joined the fray—hiring one of Indy’s top real estate attorneys, Bingham Greenebaum Doll partner Mary Solada, to fight a rezoning request that would enable the sale. The town wants the church saved and incorporated into a mixed-use, transit-oriented development.

At the request of City-County Councilor Ben Hunter, the Metropolitan Development Commission has tabled a rezoning request—a prelude to demolition—until March 18. Hunter told IBJ he hopes to meet with all the parties and work out a win-win agreement.

We hope Hunter and Solada can succeed where many others have failed. The original church on the site, which opened in 1855, served German immigrants who farmed the surrounding area. The current building opened in 1914.

Preserving the “German Church” will require finding an alterative buyer, perhaps the town of Cumberland. Someone needs to step up with cash, not complaining. And it needs to happen quickly. If not, it’s time for everyone involved to move on.•

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