First Baptist Church’s appeal of the Jacksonville Historic Preservation Commission’s decision to delay demolition of the church’s Downtown building at 125 W. Church St. will advance to the full City Council on June 23.
The Council Land Use and Zoning Committee voted 4-2 on June 16 to recommend granting the appeal, despite city staff’s preliminary findings that the building could meet the criteria for local landmark status.
The meeting at City Hall was the first in-person public Council meeting since the COVID-19 shutdown began in March.
“This is a tough decision because you want to preserve things for future generations, but do we burden entities and individuals in mandating that they do something they can’t afford?” said Council member Garrett Dennis, who voted in support of the church.
Council members Al Ferraro, Randy White and Reggie Gaffney, who represents District 7 that includes First Baptist, also voted for the appeal.
Committee Chair Danny Becton and Council member Micheal Boylan voted against the appeal. They want a full report and recommendation from the Historic Preservation Commission before the Council rules whether the building should be allowed to be torn down.
Facing an 11-year decline in membership and an annual $5 million maintenance bill, First Baptist leaders want to demolish the building to make way for a welcome center and primary entrance for the historic 182,000-square-foot Hobson Auditorium, the church administration building and the Ruth Lindsay Auditorium.
It’s part of a more than $30 million project to renovate and redevelop 1.53 acres of church property into “The Hobson Block” as the church prepares to consolidate and sell 11.29 acres of its 13.7-acre Downtown campus.
Rogers Towers attorney T.R. Hainline Jr. and architects David Luke of Luke Architecture and Jerry Traino of Novus Architects represent the church. They repeated the defense of the church’s plans they gave to the Historic Preservation Commission on June 16.
They argued the structure was not as historically significant to Downtown as the institution of First Baptist itself.
Traino said the existing building cannot be adapted to handle the foot traffic needed for the new welcome center to connect the block’s existing buildings and funnel visitors into the Hobson Auditorium.
First Baptist Senior Pastor Heath Lambert told the Council committee there is no other option if the church is to remain Downtown.
Lambert said the church has “incurred the pain and procedural obstacles to demolishing this building on the Hobson Block as we’ve entered into a recession caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.”
“ We’ve engaged in an effort to reevaluate all of our options to produce alternative plans to move forward with our ministry. And the fact of the matter is there is no plan that we can imagine that will allow us to move forward on this block without permission to demolish (the building).”
“I’m asking you to trust a church that has invested in the city for nearly two centuries,” Lambert said.
The pastor told the Jacksonville Daily Record on Feb. 19 the church secured a $15 million loan for the project and will hold a fundraising campaign for the remaining capital.
The church announced in December it hired real estate firm CBRE Jacksonville to market its property for sale.
Lambert said June 16 that the church has an agreement with its bank and the project financing is contingent on receiving the demolition permit and plan to proceed with construction on the Hobson block.
Lambert said financing has been delayed because of COVID-19.
Historic Preservation Commission
The Historic Preservation Commission voted 5-2 in February to halt the demolition, with a majority of the panel in agreement that the 1927-era structure could satisfy four of the seven criteria for landmark designation set by the city.
Pausing the demolition allowed the city Planning and Development Department staff to conduct a full evaluation of the site.
Christian Popoli, city planner supervisor for the Community Planning Division, Historic Preservation Section, told the committee June 16 that his staff intends to recommend the property receive the historic status when he presents the final report to the commission June 24.
The building is a contributing structure to the National Register of Historic Places Downtown Historic District, according to the city’s report.
Popoli’s report, released Feb. 21, said the building could meet six of the seven criteria used to proceed with designation as a local landmark.
Among the findings, the report determined the building was the first location of what would become Jacksonville University in 1934. The church sold the early high-rise to Gulf Life & Accident Insurance Co. in 1938 for use as the company’s home office.
The report found the building’s architectural significance includes its designer, architect and “Master Builder of Chattanooga” Reuben Harrison Hunt.
If the full Council votes in favor of the First Baptist appeal June 23, the demolition permit will be granted and the city’s effort to landmark the building will end.
Should the Council deny First Baptist’s appeal, the debate on the building’s historic status will return to the Historic Preservation Commission which could vote at its 3 p.m. June 24 meeting to recommend landmarking.
Council then will be asked to make a final determination on Historic Preservation’s opinion. City code states that only the Council can declare a site a local landmark. A ruling to make it a local landmark would prevent the First Baptist from demolishing the building.