CUMBERLAND — A historic church in Cumberland could be torn down and replaced with a gas station if a Pittsburgh-based company has its way.

Local preservationists are rallying to save the 101-year-old St. John United Church of Christ from the wrecking ball.

The structure is at the northeast corner of Washington Street and German Church Road, just west of the Hancock County line.

Even the town of Cumberland has joined the fight. City officials say they want to save the church and have started exploring the possibility of purchasing the land.

“It’s kind of a signature structure that we want to see stay,” Cumberland town manager Andrew Klinger said. “It has such a presence there that establishes our gateway.”

Pittsburgh-based grocer Giant Eagle has an agreement with leaders of the church to buy the property. Giant Eagle wants to demolish the church and build a convenience store and gas station on the 4.8-acre site, which has led preservationists to mount the latest campaign to save the building.

The “Save German Church” Facebook page that they launched Thursday already has attracted more than 3,000 likes.

Mark Dollase, Indiana Landmarks’ vice president of preservation services, said the church is valuable to Cumberland residents.

“It’s kind of their symbol of their community, if you will,” he said.

Cumberland straddles the Hancock-Marion County line. Under Unigov, the city of Indianapolis has jurisdiction over Cumberland zoning issues in Marion County.

At a meeting Thursday, a Metropolitan Development Commission hearing examiner is set to consider Giant Eagle’s request to rezone the land to make way for the 6,100-square-foot project.

Giant Eagle operates GetGo convenience stores and its self-named supermarket brand.

What Giant Eagle is proposing doesn’t jibe with Cumberland’s comprehensive plan, town officials said.

The town prefers a more pedestrian-friendly, mixed-use development to complement Indianapolis’ mass transit plans. The proposed 24-mile, blue line would run from Cumberland to Indianapolis International Airport.

A craft brewery, business incubator and event center are a few of the uses the town has considered.

“We’re looking for more transit-oriented development,” Klinger said. “And this is an auto-related use that flies in the face of that.”

The issue for the church is about survival, the Rev. Jimmy Watson said.

“We simply need a renovation that would cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, and we literally have 40 people in church. The people who are complaining about it just drive by; they don’t attend here.”

Longtime church member Gary Bippus said the financial agreement church officials have reached with Giant Eagle will be tough for the city of Cumberland to match.

“I’ll bet they will be thinking in terms of a five- or six-figure offer, if the zoning deal gets screwed up,” Bippus said.

A report in the Indianapolis Business Journal says the listing price on the church site is $1.8 million.

If church officials can sell the property, they plan to build at the northwest corner of Prospect Street and Carroll Road, where the church owns 50 acres. A family in the 1970s donated the land to the church, which has leased it to a farmer since, Watson said.

Lawyer Brian Tuohy represents Giant Eagle and said his client is looking forward to moving into the community if the zoning change is approved.

“The petitioner will put several million dollars in new investment into that site,” Tuohy said. “They’ll create 20-plus jobs at that site, and this is the only way the church can realize the fair market value of its asset.”

Touhy added that his client is the only one to step forward with a fair market offer to purchase the church. He said he is not insensitive to the concerns of preservationists, but he pointed out his client is on solid ground to make such a request.

“While that might be a historic gateway to the town of Cumberland, and I respect their feelings about that, the fact is on two of those four corners, it’s zoned retail commercial,” Tuohy said.

In 2010, the church had an agreement with the former Gershman Brown Crowley developer to build a CVS, but the city of Indianapolis stepped in to protect the church by granting it landmark status.

The church, in turn, filed a federal lawsuit, saying the designation by the city’s Historic Preservation Commission violated the members’ constitutional rights to freely exercise their religion. The lawsuit was settled in 2011, when the church agreed to give preservation group Indiana Landmarks six months to find a buyer who would save the building.

When it couldn’t find a buyer, the city rescinded the designation, according to the terms of the settlement.

The church is eligible to be placed on the National Register of Historic Places, which would give it federally protected status, Dollase at Indiana Landmarks said. But it’s more difficult when private property is involved because the owners need to consent to the designation.

“I feel for them from the standpoint that they want to move to another facility,” Dollase said of the congregation. “But on the other hand, there’s a broader community interest here, and that also has to be taken into consideration.”

For about a century, the land has been the site of the Tudor Gothic Revival-style church once known as Deutsche Evangelische St. Johannes Kirche. It opened in 1855, initially serving German immigrants who farmed the surrounding area. That structure was replaced later that century, and the current building opened in 1914.

The Indianapolis Business Journal contributed to this story.

Next steps

The Metropolitan Development Commission will have the final say about rezoning the land, which would give Pittsburgh-based Giant Eagle the green light to demolish the church and build a convenience store in its place.

The company will go before the commission at 1 p.m. Thursday at the city-county building, 200 E. Washington St., Indianapolis. The meeting will be on the second floor in the Public Assembly Room. Cumberland officials are expected to attend to speak against the rezoning.

Pull Quote

“It’s kind of a signature structure that we want to see stay. It has such a presence there that establishes our gateway.”

Cumberland town manager Andrew Klinger, on 101-year-old St. John United Church of Christ

Kristy Deer is a reporter at the Greenfield Daily Reporter. She can be reached at 317-477-3262 or kdeer@greenfieldreporter.com.