It was easily the most interesting of the rezoning cases the City Council heard last night – and the one that brings up the trickiest issue of the evening: What rules, if any, should the city have to limit institutions that encroach into neighborhoods? And how do you deal with big ugly surface parking lots? They're not pedestrian-friendly, nor do they contribute to the much-loved-by-planners "vibrant urban village." They're also polluters, due to polluted storm runoff.
A church in the Wilmore neighborhood wants to expand and build a large new building and a big surface parking lot on a street now holding several historic bungalows. (By "historic," here, I don't mean designated landmarks or in a designated historic district, simply a neighborhood that dates to the turn of the 19th-20th century and has an ambiance akin to Dilworth, Elizabeth and Wesley Heights.) The church has said it won't demolish the five houses but will move them to other property it owns.
The matter was a public hearing on zoning case 2008-158. The council vote should come next month.
Several things made this an interesting presentation. First, the council chamber was virtually filled with members of the church, Greater Galilee Baptist Church, whose current sanctuary (shown above, photo courtesy of the church) is on South Mint Street at West Park Avenue.
Second, one speaker in favor of rezoning had a great line: "We, as people, are in noncompliance. With Jesus."
Yet opponents had some good points: Why should a church be allowed to remove five houses and put up a surface parking lot? As neighbor Chip Cannon put it, this would be putting "a suburban mega-church in the center of a small-scale pedestrian neighborhood."
Some political realities are in order. This church is African American. Two at-large council members are running for mayor and both want African American votes (though black candidate Anthony Foxx has an edge there). Among nine at-large candidates (for four slots), three of the four Democrats are African American. Two at-large incumbents – Democrat Susan Burgess and Republican Edwin Peacock – will have to vote on this petition. Burgess, in particular, will want as many Democratic votes as she can get in November. If she faces black voters' triple-shotting for the three black at-large candidates, she'll have a problem.
Another political reality: No one wants to vote against a church, especially an obviously growing church. Maybe they'd do that in some other city in some other state, but in oh-so-Christian Charlotte? Not on your (eternal) life.
Yet another political reality: How fair would it be to crack down on an African American church when Carolinas Medical Center has been allowed to devour vast tracts of Dilworth with, near as I can tell, hardly a peep of protest from the city? And the affluent and predominantly white Myers Park United Methodist plopped a surface parking lot (nicely landscaped, though) at the prime corner of Providence-Providence-Queens-Queens. No one told them, "No." (Note to out-of-town readers: That intersection is for real. Don't even ask.)
Final political reality: I chanced to be sitting near Planning Director Debra Campbell and asked if there were any zoning standards that said you can't put in a parking lot, and she said, only in the UMUD (uptown) zoning. I asked if planners had considered cracking down on surface parking lots in other zoning categories. She just laughed – heartily, I must add – and said, "No way."