A Sense of Place 

The historic Community Baptist Church building gets a Hail Mary

The historic Community Baptist Church building gets a Hail Mary

The struggle to save a historic church in Waverly Place took some new twists this week. It looks like the old girl—one way or another—might make it after all. At a meeting Monday with neighborhood representatives, local developer Bill Hostettler unveiled the rough draft of a plan to condo-ize rather than demolish the church—as he’d originally intended—and surround the building with new townhomes.

Hostettler, who has a contract to purchase the property from the Community Baptist Church for $650,000, also gave the neighborhood a surprising last-minute option: If the group can get the financial backing to make a better deal with Community Baptist by Friday—the day he is supposed to close—Hostettler will step aside. The sum the group must come up with isn’t chicken feed: $750,000, which would meet the congregation’s needs and cover costs Hostettler has encumbered.

The fate of the church has been a source of anguish in Waverly Place because it stands at the curving intersection of South Douglas and Elliott Avenues, the heart of the neighborhood. Interest in the church has spread beyond Waverly bounds because the National Register building is a rare remaining example of the work of Hugh Cathcart Thompson, who designed the Ryman Auditorium. Of the 56 structures by this 19th century Nashvillian, only nine remain.

Thompson crafted the Gothic Revival structure in 1890 for the brand new Glen Leven Presbyterian Church. The congregation took its name from the estate owned by John and Mary Overton Thompson, who donated the church. In 1963, the congregation moved to a new structure on Franklin Road, taking their name and Tiffany windows with them.

The Community Baptist Church, led by Rev. Charles Dixon, is the present—and temporary—occupant. Hostettler’s offer to Community Baptist, which faces a March 10 deadline to purchase new quarters on Dickerson Road, sent the congregation into “Praise the Lord” mode. The uncertain future of the historic building sent nearby residents into high anxiety.

Hostettler’s original plan was to level the church and construct 26 or 27 townhouses on the 1.6-acre site. Faced with neighborhood outcry and negative publicity, Hostettler commissioned local architect Henry Bledsoe to study the feasibility of gutting the church and adapting it for condos.

The plan Hostettler and Bledsoe presented on Monday isn’t ideal. It divides the church sanctuary into four loft condos “if that works with building and fire codes,” Hostettler says. Because the developer’s deal with Community Baptist allows the congregation to remove all interior fittings, the magnificent truss work and the stained glass goes away.

In the site plan, rows of townhouses flank the sides of the church. One row is placed on the alley that cuts through the block, and the other is built toward the sidewalk on Elliott Avenue. Blocks of townhomes also turn the corners of the site and lie along the sidewalk on South Douglas Avenue, blocking the sightline to the church from all directions save immediately opposite the front facade.

Hostettler says that the exteriors of the new townhouses would be brick and concrete clapboards. Parking is to the interior of the site—behind the church and within the rows of townhouses—except for four spaces in front of the church.

The problem with Hostettler’s plan is that it crams onto the site as much new construction as possible. Rather than forming a respectful background for the historic building, the townhouses will seem to be laying siege to the church.

Other developers who’ve studied the site suggest pushing intensive new construction to the alley side of the property. This concept has the virtue of buffering the church from the backs of commercial development on Eighth Avenue, while leaving open the corner at Elliott and South Douglas avenues, the communal greenspace at the center of the neighborhood. Preservationists can only hope that the Waverly Place Neighbors find a developer who’s willing to meet the $750,000 threshold—or get the financing themselves— before the clock runs out Friday.

The controversy over the church building’s future has brought to a head concerns about the future of the whole neighborhood. “I never dreamed that the pastor would sell the property for townhomes,” says Waverly resident Corinne Mathews. “He never told anyone in the neighborhood the church was even for sale. It would be a sin to tear it down.”

Waverly Place got the wind up about Hostettler when residents saw the 14 townhomes he’s building a block from the church. They object to the dense concentration of the structures, which are built almost to the sidewalk, and the materials—vinyl siding, fake wood shingles and fake stone porch piers—as violating the community’s character. They fear that similar housing on the church site could eviscerate the heart of their neighborhood.

Hostettler’s take is that he’s just trying to make a living. “There’s a demand for housing in that area. And it’s my job to find the demand and meet it.” He points to the strong response to the 14 townhomes under construction, which he’s already sold at prices ranging from $129,900 to $135,900. Hostettler says the units on the church site will be more upscale, with “real stone, because I think people will pay for it.”

Hostettler can legally pack the church site with townhomes because of a zoning anomaly in Waverly Place. Most of the neighborhood is zoned R8, which translates to eight units to the acre, according to Metro Planning Department staffer Jerry Fawcett. But a band of land cutting through the neighborhood—including the church property—carries the far more intensive zoning of RM20—20 units to the acre.

The townhomes can grow to the sidewalk because of a loophole in the Urban Zoning Overlay (UZO), enacted in 2000 to encourage urban rather than suburban type development within pre-Metro city limits. The UZO permits developers in RM20 areas to place facades right to the edge of the public right-of-way, even if all dwellings nearby have front yards. Ann Hammond, assistant director of the Planning Department, says staff are drafting amendments to the UZO that would make the overlay more context sensitive. “But right now we have no discretion to assess the immediate context and character of surrounding properties.”

Some residents of surrounding properties see Hostettler’s 14 townhomes as introducing a definitely discordant note into the neighborhood fabric. “He took down two houses and every last tree—and there were lots of them—to build those townhouses,” says Sue Mulcahy. “That’s not a good tradeoff.”

For Hostettler, the 20-unit-per-acre zoning is the land of opportunity. “When those 14 units went swoosh, I had one of my agents send letters to every property with RM20, to see if they were interested in selling,” he says. “Now, with all this [controversy], I just wish that a couple of other neighbors had sold theirs, and the church had said 'no.’ ”

What would have ensured that new townhomes and other infill are compatible with neighborhood character—and would protect the church in the bargain—is what Waverly Place doesn’t have: conservation zoning. The mildest of historic zoning possibilities, a conservation zoning overlay gives the Metro Historic Zoning Commission (MHZC) approval power over demolitions and new construction in a designated district.

Before the church ever became an issue—in the late spring of 2003—some Waverly residents began to explore the possibility of a conservation overlay. Led by Waverly Place Neighbors president Jimmy Miller, they met with MHZC staff and learned that conservation zoning does not dictate such details as materials and paint colors, issues that had concerned some community members.

“A conservation overlay seems perfect,” says resident Bob Medling, “because we have various sites in the neighborhood where someone could put up inappropriate infill that would hurt the adjacent properties. And we’d be giving nothing up in the bargain. Some people talk about property rights as if they’re absolute. But none of us who live in an urban environment are free to put up an outhouse, or a doublewide, or pigs in the backyard. New subdivisions have restrictive covenants. The point is to support the overall community.”

Last June, Waverly Place Neighbors raised the issue of a conservation overlay with its Metro Council representative, Ronnie Greer, but he was against it.

Greer says he’s “personally opposed to conservation zoning. I live here, and I don’t want anybody telling me what to do with my property. And if we were to get it, I’d like to keep my house out of it.”

On behalf of his constituents, Greer fears that a conservation overlay would raise property values, which would raise property taxes. “We have people in this neighborhood who’ve lived here for 40, 50 years who could not afford to pay higher taxes and would be forced to sell their homes. Most of the folks in favor [of conservation zoning] haven’t lived here 10 years. If I felt that everybody in the neighborhood, including those who could be adversely affected, understood and supported it, then I’d do it.”

“For better or worse,” counters resident Paul Gontarek, “property values have already increased significantly, because of more demand for traditional neighborhoods. And they’ll continue to go up even without conservation zoning.”

One resident who knows Greer suggests that the council member’s uneasiness with preservation overlays is, ironically enough, rooted in his desire to keep the neighborhood the way it is. “That’s, of course, the whole point behind conservation zoning, but he seems to see the overlay as an agent of change. Ronnie has lived in this neighborhood his whole life, and it’s never had conservation zoning, and he doesn’t see why it’s needed now.”

For developer Hostettler, conservation zoning is an artificial construct that freezes development patterns. “Land is the true value in real estate, because God won’t make any more. Houses depreciate. If you make people maintain houses for eternity, you forbid ever increasing density with redevelopment. And that’s where the value is, for property owners as well as developers.”

Then again, neither God—nor anyone else—is going to make any more churches like the one Hugh Cathcart Thompson built. Nor is God going to make another neighborhood like Waverly Place.

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