Neighbors offer suggestions for Southland's new church

At Southland Christian Church's satellite campus in Danville, the Sunday sermon is broadcast from the main church on Harrodsburg Road. Weekly attendance in Danville averages 600.
At Southland Christian Church's satellite campus in Danville, the Sunday sermon is broadcast from the main church on Harrodsburg Road. Weekly attendance in Danville averages 600. J.A. Laub Photography

Scores of neighborhood residents, city leaders and others interested in Southland Christian Church's plans for Lexington Mall converged under a tent at the site Tuesday to share ideas on how they'd like the run-down property to look and how the church can help the community.

Displayed at one corner of the tent was the church's rough site plan for the property. According to that tentative drawing, the one-story part of the mall would be torn down and a worship center would be built. Part of the mall's existing footprint would become parking.

The two-story part of the mall that once housed Dillard's would be renovated for use as offices, youth ministry areas, nurseries and more.

"This is a conceptual plan," said Sara Tuttle of engineering firm Strand Associates, noting the plan is "subject to change."

The worship center would be about 35,000 square feet and would seat 2,400 to 2,800 people, said Richard Polk Jr., principal at EOP Architects. The Dillard's building has 140,000 square feet of space.

The reservoir in front of the property would be reconfigured, and the entrances on Richmond and New Circle roads would be developed to be more appealing to visitors.

An "entry feature" such as a sculpture or fountain would be built outside the worship center, and a similar feature would go in the pond area, tying the two together.

Tuttle said she was frequently asked whether the pond would be used for baptisms.

"That has been discussed," she said with a grin. "I don't know if it was serious or not."

"It needs to be very inviting to the public and welcoming," Polk said, noting that his firm had helped Lexington Christian Academy turn a factory building into a school. "It'll be that type of a transformation that we'll be looking for."

The church received plenty of suggestions that could help further mold the rough plan. They ranged from a desire for benches next to the pond to requests for Southland to offer vocational training and programs to help the homeless on the Richmond Road property.

Thoughts were written on large note pads displayed on easels, and the station under the "Community Needs" banner got by far the most. Many of the suggestions were related to activities for children, such as a summer lunch program, after-school program and recreational center with basketball courts.

Josh Appel said he does not attend church at Southland but knows the church has a reputation for working to help those "outside the walls" of its main campus on Harrodsburg Road.

"I'm excited about seeing what that looks like for downtown Lexington," he said.

Southland representatives said the primary purpose of the informal three-hour meeting was to gather community input.

"We thought it was most helpful to just have a meeting where we could listen," said Kurt Braun, executive director of finance and administration.

Southland has a contract to buy the 31.2-acre property from Maryland-based Saul Centers, which has owned it since 1974, the year before the mall opened. The church is in the midst of a 60-day due-diligence period. After that, Southland will have another 120 days to present its development plan to city officials, Braun has said. If the plan were rejected, Southland could back out of the deal.

Southland, which has attendance of about 10,000 people at its weekend services, wants to use the property to house the second of five satellite churches it wants to start by 2017. The first satellite, in Danville, was started last year.

Not everyone at the meeting was enthused about Southland's plans, though.

"It's a terrible waste of space," said Peter Bourne, who lives nearby. "There's a whole lot better things that could go on here."

He said he'd like to see a mixed-use development with residential and commercial uses. He said the property already has drainage issues, and much of it would have to be left as a parking lot to accommodate the church's traffic, which won't help that.

But most attendees said they were curious and excited about what the church wants to bring there.

"It's time that something is done with this," said Jim Dougherty, who said he came in part because he wanted to suggest that the church build a walking track and in part because "I wanted to apply for a job as a goose herder."

He said he often feeds the geese that live at the mall, and they come running when he beats on the side of his truck.

One of the suggestions that showed up on one of the oversized note pads was "protect the geese."

Others suggested that the new church be built with "green" materials and design concepts and lots of natural light. Some hoped the church would allow the public to use the parking lot during athletic events at Idle Hour Park.

Sharon and Arnold Cobb attend Southland and said they'd like to see the property used as more of a community center as opposed to a worship center. They envisioned a day-care center and laundromat for single mothers, and "stores" in the mall's old retail spaces where the needy could choose from donated appliances, computers, clothing and books.

"There's a lot of possibilities," Arnold Cobb said.

Donald Sowders, another neighborhood resident, said he had just one request of Southland: "Get started tomorrow."

Related stories from Lexington Herald Leader