Historic Preservation Commission weighs in

The crowd at the Historic Preservation Commission’s February 2020 meeting.

On February 26, 2020, well over 100 Jaxsons attended the Jacksonville Historic Preservation Commission meeting where the proposed demolition of the First Baptist Church’s former Sunday school building was reviewed - so many that the commission had to scramble to find a bigger room. In a 5-2 vote, the commissioners voted to reject the church’s demolition application, giving the historic structure at 125 West Church Street a temporary reprieve. However, the largest hurdles in the path to preserving the building lie ahead.

The commission’s task is to judge the significance of buildings according to seven criteria laid out in local law. Buildings that meet two of the criteria may be landmarked for further protection, and four if the property owner disagrees with landmarking. A contributing structure to the Downtown Jacksonville Historic District, the building was designed by master architect R.H. Hunt and first opened in 1927. It is where Jacksonville University got its start and served as the headquarters for the Gulf Life Insurance Company. Owing to its long history and connection to significant individuals, a staff report by the city Community Planning Division found that the Sunday school building meets six of the seven criteria, a finding similar to the report published by The Jaxson on February 4. City planner supervisor Christian Popoli presented the staff report to the HPC, and First Baptist Church’s representatives subsequently made their case. Hours of public comment from individuals on both sides followed. Ultimately Commissioners Jack C. Demetree III, Andres Lopera, Erik Kasper, Timothy Bramwell and Maiju Stansel voted against the demolition application, while Ryan Davis and Max Glober voted to approve.

The Jaxson and our friends at Mapping Jax and in the preservation community thank everyone who came out. That energy will be needed even more as the proposal moves to the next, potentially more challenging steps in the process, and in the longer mission of putting Downtown Jacksonville on a path to smart growth.

What’s next?

The Sunday school building

Potential appeal

First Baptist Church now has two weeks to file an appeal of the HPC’s decision with City Council. If they chose this route, it would head to the Office of General Counsel, which would file a bill with City Council’s Land Use and Zoning Committee (LUZ) and the full 19 member council. If City Council upholds the appeal, demolition can go forward; if they deny the appeal it will return to the HPC to proceed as normal. As of February 27, First Baptist had not made a decision on filing the appeal, but may pursue that option if they feel City Council will be more amenable to their demolition plans than the HPC.

Landmarking recommendation

The Historic Preservation Commission

If First Baptist decides not to appeal the HPC’s decision (or the appeal is denied), the HPC will decide to either approve the demolition, or draft a recommendation for City Council to give the Sunday school building landmark status. Landmark status can only be bestowed by City Council. It would afford further protections for the building, and could also make it easier for the owners to pursue historical grants and incentives to adapt it. The HPC’s decision will be aided by a fuller report on the building’s history now being prepared by the city’s Planning and Development Department as well as the continued research of private citizens. First Baptist will also be able to present an argument that the building is not worthy of a local landmark designation.

HPC would make its decision at its next meeting likely on March 25, 2020. In the February meeting, two members voted to approve demolition without further review. Another, chair J.C. Demetree, said he believed the building sits at only three or four of the criteria, rather than the six listed in the staff report. Three would be one too few to landmark the building if First Baptist opposes. As such, the key to moving preservation forward will be to convince commissioners that could swing either way.

If the HPC votes not to recommend landmarking at the March meeting, demolition would be approved. If the HPC votes to recommend landmarking, the recommendation would be filed with City Council for consideration. The decision would then be in the council’s hands. If they reject the landmarking recommendation, demolition can proceed. If they accept the recommendation, the building will be preserved - although First Baptist has said it will sue the city if that outcome happens. According to knowledgeable observers, convincing the City Council to landmark the building against the wishes of First Baptist Church will be a much harder sell.

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