There are good days in the city, great days in the city and then, there was yesterday. It started with an article by the News Sentinel’s Josh Flory in which he reported the owners of the Pryor-Brown Garage have requested demolition of that building to be replaced with a surface parking lot. This would make that entire block bordering the Bijou Theater a surface parking lot. Vague promises of a grand tower accompanied the request. It is planned for “when it becomes economically feasible.”
This is the same group which approached CBID this spring asking for $300,000 to help offset the million dollars they said it would take to rehabilitate the building. CBID declined, pointing out the owners have had the building for fifteen years and are personally responsible for its deterioration. The owners noted that the building is over one hundred years old and served as a garage for carriages before being used for cars. At the time they suggested it was an important historical building. That idea is apparently so last spring. Now it is an obstacle to what downtown really needs: More surface parking lots.
Storms moved into downtown just before the meeting of the Metropolitan Planning Commission in which they were to decide the fate of 710 and 712 Walnut Street. As I noted yesterday, this was an appeal of the Downtown Design Review Board’s decision to reject St. John’s request to demolish the buildings. The storms outside set the stage perfectly for the ill wind that blew inside the meeting.
After discussion of a number of other items, the issue came to the floor. Arthur Seymour, Jr., an attorney and member of the congregation made the case that no legal basis exists for the refusal of their request. He noted that the church needed to do this to remain viable in a downtown area in which parishioners must drive to church. The church currently has over fifty adjacent spaces which it owns as a result of previous demolitions. When pressed, he acknowledged this would add about five spaces, but insisted it would also allow better access for dropping off those who might have difficulty walking across the parking lot. No mention was made of the Locust Street Garage which sits empty and free on Sundays just two blocks from the church.
Kim Trent, of Knox Heritage, spoke for the opposition. She listed buildings that have been slated for demolition by previous generations, but were saved and now are great sources of pride: The Bijou Theater, Miller’s Building, Market Square, The Tennessee Theatre, The Daylight Building, Minvilla and many others. Often demolition of buildings in downtown has been sought or executed for grand projects which never materialized.
She noted that David Dewhirst at the urging of Knox Heritage offered to lease the buildings, finance the improvements himself and manage the property on behalf of the church. In other words, instead of tearing them down for a vague notion of parking in the future, he would pay his money to improve their property and provide an income stream. They declined, noting that he wanted too long a lease term. In other words, no solution is acceptable except demolition.
Mr. Seymour also made a statement which was at once calculating and chilling. He noted that the church had once owned the Ely, Cherokee and Cate Buildings on the same block, but sold them when it was determined that space would not be needed. The implication was that they bought all those properties with the intention of making a parking lot of the entire block, but didn’t. I suppose then, the demolition they currently plan should be seen as acceptable because they originally intended to do even more damage.
I was stunned to think that we could have lost all of these buildings, as well. It makes Kim Trent’s point very nicely to consider that property they purchased as expendable is now very valuable. As Josh noted earlier this week in his blog, the Ely building sold last week for $725,000. That’s a long way from expendable and it is money for our city tax rolls. It could just as easily have been demolished. Who knows about the current buildings under consideration? I suspect if preserved their value would only increase in the future. Once lost, they are gone forever.
The commission, after some hand-wringing and expressions of great love for Knox Heritage and historic preservation, voted unanimously to allow the demolition. They seemed to assume the issue would be appealed to the City Commission, but Kim Trent told me that decision has not been made. She noted that we must move to a conversation about our codes and laws concerning demolition. Just after the vote one of the loudest thunder claps I’ve ever heard startled everyone inside the meeting.
The thought struck me that there are two components to the issue at hand. There is a legal aspect and there is a moral aspect. It’s ironic that a secular institution such as Knox Heritage is appealing to the ethical/moral issue of proper stewardship and care for one’s neighbors, while the moral institution of the church is relying on the letter of the law and insisting on their rights.
The governing board of the church was present with yellow stickers affixed to their breasts that read “Support St. John’s,” which, by implication meant, I suppose, if you want to preserve ninety-year-old buildings and feel they are part of the fabric of the city, you are “against” the church. To my way of thinking we each owe something to those around us. I may own my property, but I should respect the needs of my neighbors. Many people love this city for its old buildings, but no one remarks admiringly about our surface parking lots.
Would a good steward not protect the buildings in its care? Shouldn’t we love our neighbors as ourselves? I think I read that somewhere one time. Perhaps the board of St. John’s should read it and consider the greater good of sowing some good will in their neighborhood. Do you love your neighbors, St. Johns?