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Council member won't challenge historic church rezoning

June 8, 2015

The City-County Council member who represents the far-east-side area where a historic church is slated for demolition said he doesn't plan to challenge a rezoning that would allow for a gas station and convenience store to be built on the property.

Pittsburgh-based Giant Eagle Inc. agreed late last year to purchase the century-old St. John United Church of Christ at the northeast corner of Washington Street and German Church Road, contingent upon a favorable outcome from the Metropolitan Development Commission.

MDC members voted 4-2 on May 6 in favor of Giant Eagle’s request to rezone the four-acre site in the town of Cumberland, allowing the plan. The rezoning requires final approval from the City-County Council. The council is scheduled to vote on the matter Monday night.

Councilor Ben Hunter said early Monday that he doesn't plan intercede in an effort to stop the rezoning vote. Hunter could delay the vote, which is expected to favor Giant Eagle’s rezoning, by “calling the proposal down” before council members are polled.

"At this current time I do not see any value in calling this matter down for a third hearing in front of the full Council," Hunter said in a written statement. “Although I personally do not want to see another gas station in my council district, several attempts to find another buyer in the last few weeks have been unsuccessful.”

Hunter, who has been involved in efforts to save the church since 2009, said there was no compelling legal reason to deny the church the right to sell the property.

“There has to have been something that was done incorrectly or unfair, and there wasn’t,” Hunter told IBJ.

Hunter met with town, church and Giant Eagle officials to explore the potential for a settlement between the parties. Town officials oppose the company’s plans and have mounted a fierce campaign to save the century-old church.

Church leaders say the aging building needs at least $750,000 in repairs—money the small congregation doesn’t have. It is 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.

Despite the dire outlook for the church, town officials say they remain in conversations with developers. Town Manager Andrew Klinger announced late last month that TWG Development LLC has proposed a mixed-use project that would preserve the century-old church.

 “If the zoning is approved tonight, to us this is not the end,” said Christine Owens, Cumberland’s director of planning and development. "There are still other options available that we are considering."

The town is exploring whether Giant Eagle correctly filed the necessary permits with the city to build the gas station and whether they may be incomplete, Owens said.

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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