Members of a predominately black church in downtown Lexington say a proposal to expand the Lexington Convention Center and build a 10-acre park on Main Street could jeopardize its future if the city doesn’t honor a decades-old agreement to provide parking for the congregation.
Since the 1980s, the congregation of Main Street Baptist Church has had free use of a Rupp Arena parking lot underneath the Jefferson Street bridge. But that parking lot — where more than 80 percent of the church parks on Sunday — will soon be used for an expanded convention center and Town Branch Park.
The city is in the process of assuming ownership of the Jefferson Street bridge from the state so it can be torn down. Once the bridge is demolished, the land will become the Main Street to the park.
Church leaders have attended several Lexington council meetings to voice concerns about the parking problem and have said they would like to acquire the property where Jefferson and Main intersect for parking. The church’s sanctuary is on one side of the bridge and another building is on the other side. The church has less than 30 spaces on its property but has more than 350 members.
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Officials with the city and Lexington Center Corporation are trying to work with the church to come up with a compromise. Lexington Center Corp. oversees the convention center and Rupp.
On Monday, Brandi Peacher, project manager for Town Branch Park, and others are scheduled to meet with church leaders to talk about how the Jefferson and Main parcel could be configured to include parking for the church but still serve as a pedestrian entrance for the park.
Peacher told the Lexington-Fayette Urban County Council during a Tuesday council meeting that she is working on a design for the new entrance that will include parking.
“This church is important to our city and our downtown, its historic home,” city spokeswoman Susan Straub said Friday. “We are presenting a parking plan to the church on Monday. This is a process, we need to have time to continue to meet with the church. We have confidence that we can find a good plan.”
The parking agreement among the church, city and Lexington Center dates to the 1980s, when then-Mayor Scotty Baesler promised the church it could use the parking lot.
Church leaders say they were in the process of acquiring a parcel of land behind the Mary Todd Lincoln house for additional parking when a building on that property burned. The city then condemned the property and purchased it, thwarting the church’s attempt to buy the property, according to church leaders.
To appease church members angered by the city’s move, Baesler and the Lexington Center agreed to allow the church to use Rupp Arena parking for free, church leaders said.
The agreement, though, was not in writing.
“They made us a promise more than 30 years ago and so far they have kept that promise,” said Wayne Cornelius, senior assistant pastor and administrator of Main Street Baptist Church.
Without nearby parking for its congregation, the church may not survive, Cornelius said.
“Would you go to a church that had no parking?” he asked.
Cornelius and other church leaders said they hope city officials will come up with a viable compromise.
Main Street Baptist Board of Trustees Chairman Lee Ridgeway said many members of their church are older. Using parking garages that are four or five blocks from the church is not an option, he said.
The expanded convention center and the park would likely attract more people to the area, where parking is already tight.
“That’s why it’s important for us to have parking that we can control,” Ridgeway said. “Shared parking is not something we can control.”
Construction on the convention center is expected to start in 2018 and will likely take 18 months to complete. A time line for construction of Town Branch Park — which is supposed to be funded using private donations — has not been announced.
The church has a long and storied history in Lexington. Free blacks and freed slaves founded the church in 1862 on land that was previously owned by the family of Mary Todd Lincoln. Abraham Lincoln’s signature is on the original deed for the property at 582 W. Main Street, where the church has been for 155 years. The church later purchased 608 and 610 W. Main Street.
If the city doesn’t want to give the church parking on Main and Jefferson Street between the two churches, another option is making tweaks to the design of the Town Branch Park to allow for parking behind the church’s property, Cornelius said.
“There is a way to do it that will still make the area park-like with trees and landscaping,” Cornelius said.