Cumberland hopes new proposal can save historic church

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Officials in the town of Cumberland are in discussions with a local developer on a plan that could save a historic church from the wrecking ball.

According to WFYI Public Media, Cumberland Town Manager Andrew Klinger announced Wednesday that TWG Development has proposed a mixed-use project that would preserve the century-old St. John United Church of Christ at the northeast corner of Washington Street and German Church Road.

In Wednesday's public meeting at the church, Klinger said TWG's proposal would preserve the church's structure as part of a larger building that would contain senior housing and retail space. Financial details were still being worked out.

Funding would come from a private-public partnership, Klinger said.

The town hopes the proposal will convince church owners to change their mind about their agreement to sell the property to Giant Eagle Inc., which plans to demolish the church and build a gas station and convenience store. The church is expected to receive an estimated $1.5 million to $2 million from the sale.

Members of the Metropolitan Development Commission voted 4-2 on May 6 in favor of the Pittsburgh-based company’s request to rezone the four-acre site to accommodate the gas station. The zoning still requires approval from the City-County Council, which is likely to vote on the proposal June 8.

Town officials, however, have opposed Giant Eagle's plans and earlier this year mounted a fierce campaign to save the church by issuing a request for information to developers who might have interest in buying the property.

Only one developer toured the church and declined to submit an offer, the Rev. Jimmy Watson, who is serving as temporary pastor of the church, told MDC members before the May 6 decision.

Church leaders say the aging building needs at least $750,000 in repairs—money the small congregation doesn’t have. It’s building a new and smaller church on part of a 50-acre tract the church owns at the northwest corner of East Prospect Street and Carroll Road.

TWG, formerly known as the Whitsett Group, has redeveloped several other high-profile projects in the city, including Fall Creek View, Penn Street Tower, Lockerbie Lofts, The Meridian, 333 Penn Apartments and 800 Capital Apartments. It is currently working on the The Flats at Switch in Fishers and Pulliam Place in downtown Indianapolis.

Giant Eagle needed to present its request to rezone the property to the Indianapolis MDC because the town’s borders are split between Hancock and Marion counties.

For about a century, the land in question has been the site of the Tudor Gothic Revival-style church, which once was 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.

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