Cumberland ups ante in fight to save historic church

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Cumberland officials are stepping up their efforts to stop a supermarket and convenience store chain from demolishing a historic church by hiring one of Indianapolis’ top real estate attorneys to argue their appeal.

Pittsburgh-based grocer Giant Eagle won a major victory Feb. 12 when the hearing examiner for the city’s Metropolitan Development Commission recommended granting the company a zoning variance to construct a 6,100-square-foot gas station and convenience store on the 4.8-acre site.

Giant Eagle has an agreement with leaders of the St. John United Church of Christ to buy the property at the northeast corner of Washington Street and German Church Road.

Town officials, however, are appealing the hearing examiner’s decision, which the MDC was set to consider March 4. The issue since has been continued until March 18, at the urging of City-County Councilor Ben Hunter.

He plans to meet March 5 with representatives of the town, church and Giant Eagle to explore the potential for a settlement between the parties.

“They’ve requested that I intervene,” Hunter said. “I had a good conversation with all the parties involved and am hoping to work out a compromise. That’s my goal and intent.”

In the meantime, Cumberland has brought on Mary Solada to handle its appeal. Solada, a partner at the local office of Bingham Greenebaum Doll LLP, formerly led the firm’s real estate practice group.

She replaces Thomas Engle, a partner at Barnes & Thornburg LLP, who serves as counsel to Historic Landmarks Foundation of Indiana Inc.

“Looking at Mary’s experience, she deals more with metropolitan development cases,” said Andrew Klinger, Cumberland’s town manager. “Tom has a really good background in that as well, but he was brought in more from the historic preservation side, and this is a zoning issue we’re trying to fight.”

Cumberland will pay Solada up to $5,000 to handle its appeal, Klinger said.

The town wants to save the century-old church and had started exploring the possibility of purchasing the land before Giant Eagle agreed to buy it.

Town officials would even support another entity acquiring the building if it meant saving the structure, Klinger said.

“In my view, a win-win for everyone would be a solution where Giant Eagle is still able to build but at a different location,” he said, “and the church is still able to sell but with the church structure preserved.”

The town insists that a gas station and convenience store at that location doesn’t mesh with its comprehensive plan. The town prefers a more pedestrian-friendly, mixed-use development to complement Indianapolis’ mass-transit plans. The proposed 24-mile, east-west blue line would span from Cumberland to Indianapolis International Airport.

The final verdict on the land use rests with Indianapolis simply because of its proximity to the city. Cumberland straddles Hancock and Marion counties. Under Unigov, the city of Indianapolis has jurisdiction over Cumberland zoning issues in Marion County.

Giant Eagle operates the GetGo convenience stores in addition to its Giant Eagle supermarkets. The company is building a grocery at The Bridges development in Carmel.

Church leaders say the building needs at least $750,000 in repairs—money the dwindling 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.

For about a century, the land that Giant Eagle wants to build on 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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