The idea has stirred up a hornets nest of controversy in the neighborhood.
There are those who say the church has turned a cold ear to neighbors concerns and cares only about itself. They claim the plan is just a continuation of big developers destroying the historic nature of Atlanta for their own greed.
Supporters of the church say they have tried to work with the community, that the structures they want to tear down are not historic just old and run down, and that the church needs to move forward with its plan in order to preserve its own historic self and to carry out missions of social justice and spiritual advancement.
Me, I don't live there, so I don't know. I'm always wary of any big outfit that seems to want to override opposition of neighborhood residents. But on the other hand some of the comments of those "neighbors" and some of their concerns bother me.
The Midtown Neighbors' Association (MNA) which is fighting the plan sent out a request to its members and others urging them to:
"...support their community in its demand for legislative action that would make the wanton demolition of historic buildings if not illegal at least more difficult than the current process. Atlanta has long been the poster child of demolition and we have lost most of our best architectural works our community is increasingly outraged by continuous threat to our built environment and we need to be orchestrated in both supporting that public interest and pushing that agenda publicly."
The MNA says the Juniper Street corridor is an important "buffer" to the commercial development on Peachtree Street. Juniper Street's character lies in the historic mid-rises that predominate. In particular, argues the group, "...this block's historic value will be lost if these buildings are demolished. To build a parking lot is not only a code violation, but unnecessary."
The church argues it just wants to develop more convenient and safer parking for its members. It says this plan is important for Saint Mark’s long term future and that it will add to the Midtown community.
Neighborhood resident Charles Jordon disagrees. He says, "Demolishing these buildings and trees for a one day a week parking lot is not in the best interest of the neighborhood. There is no economic or aesthetic benefit of having a large parking lot. Historic buildings should only be demolished for sound reasons that enhance the neighborhood."
Many in the area seem to oppose the parking lot because they say it will attract "undesirables" and "transients." I can't help but wonder exactly what that means. Such comments can really be codewords for a not so pleasant agenda. In fact, one of those opposed to the Church plan wrote the following comment at the Journal Constitution, "I do know that the St Marks homeless outreach program attracts and feeds the vagrants who get drunk and roam through my back yard."
It sounds to me like that neighbor doesn't think much of the Outreach Ministry at Saint Mark which the church's website describes "... as varied and diverse as the people who enter our doors each Sunday morning. Saint Mark has a long and vibrant history of social justice and advocacy, often on the cutting edge of social change. We have committed ourselves to reaching out and helping those people who, for whatever reason, find themselves in need."
Anyone who has trouble with that...well, maybe they ought to move somewhere else.
Anyway, a supporter of the plan and a member of the church points out in their own comment in the Journal Constitution, "There is more potential crime in the houses that are sitting there falling apart than in a parking lot that will be used heavily by church members and the community members that come to the church for weekly activities."
The following ditty comes from the Atlanta Journal Constitution.
Midtown church told to save historic buildings
For more than five years, Elston Collins has been a member of the St. Mark United Methodist Church at the corner of Fifth and Peachtree streets.
That is, until now.
Collins resigned from the congregation in protest of the church’s desire to demolish three historic buildings along Juniper Street and to replace them with a surface parking lot.
“It’s really disappointing for me on lots of fronts,” said Collins, who also serves as president of the Midtown Neighbors Association. “Neighbors couldn’t believe my church was doing this.”
Originally, it appeared as though the church was willing to work with the community and historic preservation leaders to explore solutions that would keep the buildings yet provide parking and future development opportunities. In May, St. Mark agreed to defer its demolition permit request for at least 30 days to explore those solutions.
“We pulled in so many resources from the community,” Collins said. “We had experts who presented them alternatives with potential funding streams. What really sent me over the edge was that while we were trying to find solutions, the church decided to go ahead with demolition. I was just appalled that the church could be so two-faced.”
Collins is not alone with his frustration.
At a meeting of the Development Review Committee Thursday evening, not one member of the public spoke in favor of the church’s plans.
The committee then voted unanimously to oppose the demolition permit and against any variances that would permit the church to develop a parking lot. The committee’s vote reaffirmed similar votes taken by the Midtown Neighbors Association and the Neighborhood Planning Unit - E.
St. Mark member Bill Sanders, who spoke on behalf the church, said preservationists “made some excellent suggestions, but it involves land we don’t own and money we don’t have.” Later he described the alternative solutions as “half-baked.”
In addition, Sanders said the church wanted to consolidate its land holdings on its block so it eventually could develop the site into a 20-story building. But he said that could five, 10 or 50 years out.
After committee members voted in a closed door session, Clifford Altekruse summed up the group’s position that the church did not seriously explore alternatives.
“It’s our sense that the church is turning down that opportunity so it can demolish the buildings,” Altekruse said. “That strikes us as wrong because it’s hurtful to the neighborhood and it’s unnecessary because financing was available. The committee is srongly opposed to granting any of the variances.”
Currently the three buildings, built around 1905 as residences, have no historic designation. Committee members acknowledged there might not be a legal standing to prevent their demolition.
But they also read from land-use and zoning regulations that the church’s proposal to build a surface parking lot on that site is not permitted.
NPU-E Chair Penelope Cheroff, who sits on the committee, explained that having driveways and parking lots fronting major streets only take away from Midtown’s growing pedestrian environment. “It flies in the face of all we’re trying to do in Midtown,” she said.
The committee’s recommendation and the demolition requests are now headed to City Hall. If the city denies the permits, the church then could appeal the decision in the courts.
In the meantime, Elston Collins will be looking to join another congregation.