by Michael R. Allen
I attended Monday’s meeting of the Southwest Neighborhood Garden Association and listened to many residents speak about the “Magnolia Square” project that calls for demolishing the church. The section of the meeting devoted to the project was conducted as a sort of “town hall” with neighborhood association president Floyd Wright acting as moderator between residents and the assembled crew of developer James Wohlert, Alderman Joseph Vollmer (D-10th) and Father Vincent Bommarito of the neighboring St. Ambrose parish. Eleven speakers spoke against demolition of part or all of the existing church building, one spoke in favor of Magnolia Square and six people asked pointed questions of the developer. Although there was reference to supposed outside-the-‘hood opposition to demolition, it became clear on Monday that residents who are informed largely don’t support demolition. What they would support as reuse is a matter of debate, though. Steve Patterson spoke against demolition and presented an alternate plan that would place several condo units inside the church. Half of the people who opposed demolition reacted negatively to his idea.
Yet condominium conversion is only one possible reuse for the church. While even more unconventional ideas, like office space for a small company or a restaurant, would certainly find no support from the neighborhood, other plans might. I think that neighbors of the church love its beautiful and serene site — and don’t want any use that would generate more vehicle traffic than the church did. Perhaps the church could become a community center or art gallery. I hope that neighbors who oppose demolition and condominiums can suggest a reuse that would be economically feasible.
If the owner of the property had an open mind, such a brainstorming could produce a wonderful compromise that would preserve the church, convent and rectory — I’m not counting on the never-finished original church to be a popular rallying point — while allowing for new home construction on the rest of the site.
However, it’s also clear that Wohlert has no intention of backing down with his plan. He is supported by Alderman Vollmer, who did most of the talking on Wohlert’s behalf on Monday. (Smart move, I suppose.) While the alderman was diplomatic, he also seemed to ignore resident commentary by repeatedly making statements suggesting that demolition was inevitable, even after it was clear that almost no one was buying them.
Vollmer’s answer to the question of whether he would take Ward 10 out of preservation review if the Preservation Board would not reverse its preliminary denial of a demolition permit was only mildly encouraging. He said that he did not want to remove the ward from review, but removal existed as a “last resort.” He also stated later that there was almost no exceptional architecture in Southwest Garden — a neighborhood containing State Hospital, St. Aloysius Gonzaga and many interesting vernacular buildings — and that people moved there for the neighborhood, not for architecture. While I’m sure that his thoughts are more elaborate than they sounded, he came across as crudely disrespectful toward his own ward’s historic buildings.
Wohlert came under fire even from people who don’t think preservation is realistic. Many people asked him about his hideous new house on January Avenue, which is on of the least urban buildings in the city. They wondered whether he could build good-looking buildings, and furthermore if he could sell them (his speculative house only now found a buyer after months on the market). He assured people that he is incorporating every one of the Cultural Resources Office’s recommendations for reworking his project, but did not convince many people of his ability to building thirty-six new homes in an urban context.
The next step will be a meeting of the aldermanic Housing, Urban Development and Zoning Committee on Monday, January 16 at 10:00 a.m. in Room 208 of City Hall. The Committee will hear Vollmer’s bill that declares the St. Aloysius Gonzaga block “blighted.” It’s full steam ahead for the project’s backers, even if the residents of Southwest Garden have objections.
Meanwhile, SaveStAloysius.org has lauched.