The fate of a historic former church at E College and N. College Streets appears brighter coming out of a city council workshop last night than it did going in.

The former Methodist church dates from 1888.
The former Methodist church dates from 1888.

The future of the vacant church now rests solely with the council. A city deal to buy the property it sits on for $1.55 million from Franklin Synergy Bank closed last month. The bank will lease the property from the city until its Rutherford County headquarters building along Medical Center Parkway is completed.

Once the bank moves, the city plans to package the 1.87 acre block  between N. Church, N Spring, E College and E. Lytle Streets for redevelopment.

"I've been telling you for some time that you've been too hard on these guys."
“I’ve been telling you for some time that you’ve been too hard on these guys.”

Councilman Eddie Smotherman declared flatly that he would not vote for any redevelopment proposal that does not save the church sanctuary — meaning the original building.

Councilman Rick LaLance again floated his idea that the building could be used to provide badly needed office space for the city or as an archive for city records.  This plan fell so flat, he later tried to back off from it quietly while bowing gracefully.

Four council members not stating position yet

There are still imponderables. The city hasn’t yet gotten a report on damage to the church, which has been vacant for ten years, or what it would cost to bring it up to speed. So far, there has only been a cursory walkthrough of the building. Everyone agreed that if fixing the building proves to be a burden to taxpayers, all plans to save it are off.

And there was no public commitment from other members of the council to save the building — Mayor Shane McFarland or Councilmen Ron Washington, Bill Shacklett ot Vice Mayor Doug Young.

The church could be an icon for a redeveloped downtown

City Manager Rob Lyons appeared optimistic that this block could set the tone for the entire surrounding area, with the historic church as its anchor. It’s quite a turnaround from last January when Lyons first proposed to buy the block and package it as a unit for redevelopment. At that time city staff members spoke only of saving the church bell tower.

Shades of the Springfield Home battle

There are many parallels in this story to an apartment complex that has been approved off Manson Pike. Originally, the developer, Charles Haskett of Birmingham, proposed building apartments under a conventional rezoning and was apparently ready to tear down the historic Springfield home on the property.

Faced with public opposition, he changed his stance dramatically, proposing to build luxury apartments and preserving the house as a theme for his entire development. We aren’t there yet with the church, but the possibility is enticing.

A third bookend?

Smotherman spoke of the church as a possible third boundary marker for the central downtown area — the others being the city hall complex and the new county judicial building going up W. Lytle St. between N. Maple and N. Church.

Lack of conflict hurting TV ratings

Naturally, we were hoping the meeting would be akin to the Villanova-N. Carolina basketball game. Instead, we got Villanova-Oklahoma. Mayor Shane McFarland joked: “Maybe we should fight more to give the press something to write about.”

The problem was the workshop was probably called too soon, for Lyons was asking for specifics from the council without giving them many specifics to chew on.

A mission statement needed for this critical block

Lyons wanted a broad mission statement from the council so city staff members, when fielding proposals from developers, could determine what ideas are in line with the council’s philosophy and what plans are out of line.

He compared it to the city’s Gateway District, where the council stated clearly that its goal is to bring in high quality jobs and corporate headquarters. Thus, if developers come in with plans for a convenience store, for example, they are told this violates the spirit of the district and are urged to look elsewhere in the city.

We don’t have enough to go on yet

Shacklett said that until the council members can learn more about marketing potential for the area and what development proposals are coming in, they are only talking in the abstract. He said he is willing to do this but implied it is a waste of time.

“There are a lot of creative minds here,” said Shacklett. “Let’s throw it out to the people who dream big and see what they come back with.”

Two important planning studies in the works

Many of these questions will be answered in two studies he council has commissioned: one for The Bottoms area and a second for the Highland Avenue corridor between the old town center and Middle Tennessee State University.

Meanwhile the vision statement Lyons was looking for is still pretty vague. All we know now is: (1) that there is a support from at least two council members for saving the church; (2) any proposal for a major rental housing development there would face rough sledding; (3) if the church survives it should become an engine for downtown growth, not more office space for city employees.

Bid for public imput

Meanwhile, Smotherman proposed what should have been obvious. What happens on this block will affect a lot of people in the town. Before the council makes a decision and spends residents’ money, it should hold a town meeting, preferably on the site. Lyons agreed but warned it might be hard to hold that meeting on the property while the bank is still leasing it.

Tired feet and a lecture from the police

I wish them luck with their town meeting. I put 584 flyers out in ten days before the meeting, and I doubt anyone responded to them by showing up Thursday night. I wound up with two comments on my clipboard and a stern lecture from a lady police officer.

It appears someone on the Crime Watch patrol called police about a possible 74-year old terrorist who was lurking around the city.

Excuse Me!
Excuse Me!

The lady cop was upset that I was not carrying a photo I/D on me, which she said I must do at all times when I am in public. Because I have become forgetful, I had started leaving my driver’s license in my car.

Once I found I was going to be set free, I complimented her on the department’s diligence. But I immediately went home to read my personal copy of the Patriot Act to see if her I/D warning was true. I was wondering if I had made a wrong turn while walking and wound up in the Soviet Union.

Here are links to two prior stories I did on this issue The first is a is a piece that shows how other communities are preserving historic former churches by putting them to good use.

The second links to the original story I did on buying the block. It also contains the contact list for the council members.

  • To be fair to the lady cop, I was originally attaching flyers to the outside of street mailboxes. I learned later that even putting flyers outside the mailbox or on the mailbox post is illegal. It seems the reach of the U.S Postal Service is longer than I had imagined.