Proposed land deal between Edwardsville District 7 and church has some upset

News-DemocratApril 13, 2014 

BND

— A proposed land deal between District 7 schools and First Presbyterian Church has some neighborhood residents and church members upset and asking questions before a school board vote planned for Monday night.

First Presbyterian Church has stood in a historic neighborhood of Edwardsville since 1923, and its next-door neighbor is Columbus School, which has been in use since 1886. A product of its times, Columbus has only 19 parking spaces for 45 employees, and so for many years the church has allowed the school to use its parking lot for parking and dropoff and pickup of students.

To improve the safety of students, the school district looked at acquiring the church property.

The school district has offered First Presbyterian Church $800,000 for the church property, and another $500,000 to pay for the building demolition and asbestos abatement, for a total of $1.3 million paid over 10 years. The church would handle the demolition and remediation of the site, at which point the school district would construct playground and parking space with a new dropoff and pickup system that also would require some rerouting of streets and/or traffic changes to be authorized by the city.

The sale contract still has to be approved by the District 7 school board, which will consider it on Monday night. The street changes also will have to be approved by the Edwardsville City Council in the future.

The money would be paid from the district's impact fees, which are funds paid by developers when they construct residential developments. Impact fees may only be used for acquisition of new property, new construction or renovations to address crowding, not for district operations.

Superintendent Ed Hightower said that it's getting crowded at Columbus, which is at 315 N. Kansas St., and he is worried about students' safety, particularly during the morning and afternoon rushes with 359 students exiting the building.

"We are very fortunate that we have not had an accident of major proportions," Hightower said. "It's a very unsafe condition, and with the number of kids that are transported and the number of parents picking up their children, it needs to be a better situation."

Meanwhile, First Presbyterian is going forward with plans to move its congregation to a new building on Ridgeview Road, out on the growing east side of town. Pastor John Hembruch said the old church has "many deficiencies" in terms of handicapped accessibility, asbestos and maintenance issues. In 2009, the congregation voted to proceed with the concept of a new building.

Hembruch said their plan was three-fold: a capital campaign to raise funds, selling their old property, and sale of some of the 29-acre Ridgeview property, as their new building will only require about 10 acres.

Residents near the school are concerned about the cost of the project and the prospect of a parking lot where the church currently stands.

"One problem is $1.3 million for a parking lot. Are you kidding me? That's insane," said Dodie Levi, who has lived across the street from the church since 1979. "The other problem is that this is a beautiful, historic neighborhood ... It would be a shame to waste so much history and just plow it down. I keep thinking of the song, 'Tear down paradise and put up a parking lot.' It's not OK."

Other residents have agreed, taking to the Internet to discuss concerns with rerouting the streets, potentially losing green space, and eliminating an older, historic building.

First Presbyterian is not a designated landmark in Edwardsville, and thus does not have those protections.

Hightower said they have done similar projects at other schools surrounded by residential areas, including Nelson, Leclaire and Midway elementary schools. "This is not something unusual that we're trying to do here," he said. "It's all about addressing the safety of a child. At some point if we don't do something, someone is going to get hit."

Church member Lynette Watson said the congregation's vote in late March to approve the sale was "overwhelming," but she wished they had found another way. She said the church had had offers from another congregation that was interested in moving in and keeping the building, but their offer was much lower than the district's offer.

Watson said she wished they would have sold the church to that congregation and sold outlots and a nearby house that the church also owns to the school district for $500,000, which would be less public funds expended.

"They could still shut down the street to help with the safety issue, but not turn it into a city block of parking," Watson said. "The church doesn't get torn down, and the neighborhood is happy. The neighborhood gets to stay a neighborhood."

Hightower said he understands the neighbors' concerns, but he believes the new plan will preserve the flavor of the neighborhood. "We will try to preserve and work to maintain the integrity of that area as we have throughout the district," he said.

And Hembruch said the congregation hopes to keep as much of their historic building as possible in the new building. They plan to bring their organ, art glass windows, cornerstones and any other architectural element for which a place can be found in the new design, he said.

"We have an opportunity to take some of our old building with us," he said.

Hembruch said while the church's governing board unanimously supported the plan, he is not surprised by the neighbors' reactions.

"I think they have concerns as any good citizen would about his or her neighborhood. They're trying to voice their concerns and I hope those concerns will be heard by the city and school district," Hembruch said. "We have members who strongly support and strongly oppose the proposal ... During all the years that Presbyterians have been in Edwardsville, we have been faithful supporters of public education. This proposed sale will benefit the church, the school district and the community at large."

But Levi said she believes it is a mistake for the neighborhood. If it's "a done deal," she said, at least she hopes they will try to make it blend into the neighborhood's atmosphere. "There should be stipulations about how they construct and maintain this parking lot," she said. "We don't want lights on all night, we don't want fences. If the district gets their way, then they had better make it worthwhile for this neighborhood. They'd best start planting trees, and I'm not talking about itty bitty sticks. Make it look like it belongs, or could belong in this neighborhood."

Most of all, Watson said, she would like to see the neighbors, the church, school leaders and the community work together -- not just for the community, but for the kids. "Ignoring each other and rushing to get to a goal without listening isn't right," she said. "I don't feel this is the message we should send to our children or anyone else. It does, after all, take a village."

Contact reporter Elizabeth Donald at edonald@bnd.com or 618-239-2507.

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