Monday, August 21, 2006

St. Thomas More forgotten in fray

As published in the Chapel Hill Herald on August 19th, 2006:

This month two historic buildings are being torn down in Chapel Hill. One, West House on the UNC campus, has been the subject of loads of activism and media attention over the last few years. The other, the original St. Thomas More Church on Gimghoul Road, is being torn down with little attention from anyone other than the parties involved.

It's a shame that either of the buildings is meeting its demise. I've walked by each of them pretty much daily for the past four years and they each enhance their surroundings.

It is interesting, though, what the difference in the public outcry over the destruction of each building says about our community. Most of the people I've talked to who are familiar with both of these buildings agree that the church is more striking and attractive than West House.

Yet it is West House which has attracted the large coalition of talented locals to advocate for its survival, including Sen. Ellie Kinnaird and three members of the Chapel Hill Town Council. They first encouraged the preservation of the building in its current spot, and as the prospects of that dimmed, explored the possibility of relocating it.

On the other hand there has been virtually no outcry about the demise of the church, which anchors the Gimghoul neighborhood. It will be replaced with a residence for Vilcom owner Jim Heavner, who currently lives elsewhere in the neighborhood.

There is an obvious surface level reason for the disparity in activism. West House is in a prominent place on campus, so there are a lot more people who see it and could have developed an affection for it on a daily basis.

The main reason no one is speaking out about the church, though, is probably that the neighbors want it gone. The Gimghoul neighborhood association has complained for years about the church and its parking lot, and the prospect of a single home on the property is appealing to them.

I can understand the concern that a business would buy the church and become disruptive to the neighborhood, and I'm glad that's not happening. I'm less sympathetic to some of their behavior toward the church over the past few years.

St. Thomas More has long rented out the spots in its parking lot, both helping to raise money for its activities and providing a much needed parking source for students and staff close to campus. Several years ago the neighborhood association sued over this.

The church offered to compromise by chaining off the Gimghoul Road entrance to the parking lot other than on Sunday mornings, so that there would not be any additional traffic in the neighborhood. The homeowners association was not interested in making a deal, though.

The neighborhood leaders are supportive of the demolition of the church, at least in part because now they won't have to worry about parking there. I think it's unfortunate they were so eager to see a historic building torn down just to avoid a minimal amount of traffic.

The Gimghoul neighborhood is one of Chapel Hill's three historic districts, which gives it a lot of protections other parts of town don't have. It's an area well deserving of those extra steps to maintain its character, but one does wonder what the point is when its most striking structure is torn down without a protest.

The Historic District Commission, rather than the Town Council, had jurisdiction over this matter. The body's rules say that it should not authorize a tear-down without seeing the plans for what the new building will look like, but in this case that requirement was waived. All but one member of the HDC, which has several residents of the Gimghoul neighborhood in its membership, voted to allow this exception.

I don't mean to be so hard on the Gimghoul neighborhood leaders. In fact, if I could live in any area of Chapel Hill, it would be my choice. Their neighborhood has retained its unique character and beauty because of some of their actions over the years. Beyond that it has been put at great risk because of the UNC chiller plant, which the neighborhood was right to fight. It's quite possible that the urge to remove the church and its parking problem is an overreaction to getting burned by UNC three years ago.

I support neighborhoods in Chapel Hill that want to preserve their historical character -- but part of that means actually preserving the buildings that give it historical character. There were no easy solutions to saving the St. Thomas More church, but it's too bad that no one even tried.

Tom Jensen is a local political activist and a recent graduate of UNC. Readers can contact him at or c/o The Chapel Hill Herald, 106 Mallette St., Chapel Hill, NC 27516.



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