The Daily Pulse:

MPC approves St. John's plan for Walnut Street buildings

After a half hour of discussion, the Metropolitan Planning Commission approved St. John's Cathedral's request for permission to demolish two 1920s buildings at 710 and 712 Walnut Street, overturning last month's decision by the Downtown Design Review Board. With advocates limited to a total of five minutes each, Arthur Seymour, Jr., both a parishioner of St. John's and an attorney best known for his advocacy of property rights, explained that the church needed to demolish both buildings in order to improve automobile access to the church's rear entrance, effectively widening the second entrance to the church's 50-something-space surface parking lot.

Kim Trent, executive director of Knox Heritage, spoke of the buildings' similarity to several successfully rehabbed buildings elsewhere downtown, and mentioned that prolific downtown developer David Dewhirst had offered to fix up the buildings as residences at no cost to the church--which made some remarks from the MPC members about the vacant buildings' potential for "blight" seem surprising. Even without Dewhirst's offer, on the open market, they'd be snapped up and rehabbed as residences pretty quick. Seymour made it clear that the church would never sell the properties. Other commissioners spoke of the necessity of parking in the survival of a church. Commissioner Lomax asked Seymour how many parking spaces might be added by the project. Four or five, he responded. The two and three-story buildings occupy a rather small patch of real estate.

The result wasn't unexpected; the MPC's staff had noted that nothing in the statutes or guidelines expressly forbids the demolitions. However, one apparent surprise to both sides was announced by MPC staffer Mike Reynolds, who got word from the state this morning that 710 Walnut, in particular, is eligible for the National Register of Historic Places. Knox Heritage has contended that both buildings are eligible. But in the end, that distinction offers no legal implications about whether they can be demolished. 

The unanimous vote came just seconds before a deafening thunderclap rocked the City County Building.

Trent declined to comment on whether Knox Heritage would appeal the decision, in which case it would go before City Council, probably next month.

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