Local church proposes land swap with Johnson City

David Floyd • Nov 18, 2019 at 10:06 PM

Leaders from a local church are asking Johnson City to re-examine a proposal to swap two small parcels of downtown land, both of which are currently used for parking.

Paul Helphinstine, the pastor of First Presbyterian Church, told Johnson City commissioners during an agenda review meeting Monday evening that the changes would allow the church, which owns multiple parcels along that city block, to develop better green space and provide additional security to kids in the church’s pre-school. He said the church also hopes to move its playground, which is situated beside the building, into their current green space.

“In order to move children safely through that area we have to be able to have control over that piece of property,” Helphinstine said.

Under the terms of the proposal, First Presbyterian Church would swap a plot of land it owns on Wilson Avenue, which is beside Mid City Grill and across the street from the Founders Park Pavilion, for a city-owned parcel at 133 W. Main St. The city-owned parcel also includes a small pad situated behind the building at 127 W. Main St.

The parking lot on Wilson Avenue currently supports about 30 cars. The one on West Main Street supports about 26.

Although the design could still change, Gary Arner, the church’s facilities manager, said if the swap goes through, the church may turn the parking lot on West Main into a green space with roughly 13 additional parking spaces. The church is also asking the city to abandon a portion of the right-of-way that runs behind a block of buildings on West Main, which would allow the church to close that portion of the alley with a gate.

Helphinstine said the city initially proposed the swap to the church in 2014.

“Even though I wasn’t there, I’ll fully own that the church probably didn’t handle all that discussion perfectly well, so it fell apart and kind of went quiet for a while,” he said. “But the city even continued to pursue it after a while even to the point that the city delivered contracts for the swap to happen.”

Arner said the church has had homeless people sleeping near the back of the building. Arner said staff have also occasionally seen people urinating and changing clothes from the church’s office windows and the playground.

“There are a couple doorways at the back of the church where I’ve had to clean up feces,” Arner said. “The back steps of the church, recently someone had projectile vomited on the wall.”

Leaders said they’ve also found drug paraphernalia.

Ultimately, Helphinstine said this proposal would allow the church to have greater control over its property.

“It’s not a constant threat and our teachers do a great job, but that’s why we’re keeping the playground next to the building is because it is safe, but we’d like to do that with a much nicer space,” he said.

City Manager Pete Peterson suggested commissioners consider the proposal during their second meeting in December, which would give staff time to survey the properties, draw up deeds and have engineers evaluate a wall at the Wilson Avenue parking lot.

“That way we’ll have ample time to investigate everything,” he said.