Southland Church's revised building plan causes concern for neighbors

Southland Christian Church's amended plan calls for a smaller pond in front of its satellite campus on the site of the former Lexington Mall.
Southland Christian Church's amended plan calls for a smaller pond in front of its satellite campus on the site of the former Lexington Mall. HERALD-LEADER

Faced with escalating costs, Southland Christian Church has filed an amended development plan for the site of the former Lexington Mall on Richmond Road.

The new plan would create a second commercial parcel fronting Richmond Road that could be leased or sold, and it would reduce substantially the size of the pond in front of the former mall.

The church, based in north Jessamine County, bought the 31-acre site in 2010 for a satellite campus.

Cost of construction, initially estimated at $19.3 million, grew to $24 million before two rounds of cost-cutting and scaling back, Chris Hahn, Southland's lead executive pastor, said Monday.

Neighbors who met Monday night at Perkins Restaurant in front of the mall said they were particularly concerned about how a smaller pond might affect water runoff.

Jim Capeley, president of Idle Hour Neighbors Alliance, said the area already has serious problems with runoff.

After just an inch of rain, a nearby creek "flows like a whitewater rafting, and it all goes down into this pond," he said. "Where's all that water going to go?"

Councilman Bill Farmer Jr., who represents the neighborhood, agreed to work with the group to help draft a petition and try to arrange a meeting with representatives of the church. He said he also would ask planning officials to look into the runoff issues and how the church's plan might affect the situation.

"I get a little angry when I'm duped, and this is a process of 'dupation,' as far as I am concerned," said area resident Carole Youngblood.

The original design showed one parcel and major reconfiguration of the pond to create a water feature. But Hahn said Monday that increased costs had forced the church to make changes.

Removing and disposing of contaminated sludge from the pond and beautifying the surrounding area would have cost about $750,000.

Filling in much of the pond and eliminating the water feature will save money, Hahn said.

Heavy equipment brought in to raze much of the long-vacant mall and construction equipment chewed up the 27-acre parking lot to the point it will have to be resurfaced at "a pretty significant cost," Hahn said.

Reconditioning the sprawling parking area and adding landscaping "to make it where it is nice, but not what we'd love to do" will cost about $1.2 million, he said.

Also, structural engineers found "a lot more to do when they got into re-enforcing the old Dillard's department store building than they, originally, estimated," Hahn said. The additional steel raised costs.

By selling or leasing the two parcels, the church will have more money to spend on landscaping two entrances off Richmond Road, Farmer said in his constituent newsletter last week.

The councilman said church officials had told him that without the extra money generated by the parcels, the pond would remain exactly as it is, with no additional improvements and no cleanup.

Overall, Hahn said, "We've made cuts of about $5 million to stay within budget. Because of that we had to re-think the design of the property."

Southland announced in July 2010 that it would buy Lexington Mall from Maryland-based Saul Centers, which had owned the mall since 1974.

The enclosed mall had been dormant for several years. The property includes the land on which Perkins and Applebee's restaurants sit. It does not include the property owned by Central Bank or Home Depot or the site of a former BP gas station.

Hahn said the former Dillard's building is being converted to youth and children's classroom spaces on the first floor, with church offices on the second. Most of the second floor will remain unfinished. "We want to see as we grow what to use the space for," he said. An adjoining new building — on the site of the former enclosed mall — will be the worship center.

Southland launched a three-year capital fund drive in December 2010. Members have pledged $18 million. The church has received about $8 million of those pledges, said Kurt Braun, executive director of finance and administration.

"It is pretty common in the church world for people to spread their pledges out over three years," Braun said, adding, "We are tracking pretty well at this point."

The church's amended development plan is scheduled to be reviewed by the Planning Commission's technical committee Feb. 22 and by the subdivision committee March 1.

It will go before the full Planning Commission at 1:30 p.m. March 8 in council chambers of the Government Center.

Related stories from Lexington Herald Leader