Tuesday, May 26, 2009
About five years ago, this building was slated to become a multi-faceted facility with two restaurants along with office and retail space. Despite a lack of onsite parking, the application was approved with the notion that nearby municipal parking lots would provide the needed spaces. But somehow the "Caribbean Plaza" never materialized, and according to my notes, the building went up for sale in May 2007.
Despite the address emblazoned on the corner facade at West Second Street and Central Avenue, the former electrical supply business technically comprises two lots making up 401-411 West Second Street.
Now that Genesis Seventh-Day Adventist Church seeks to use the building as a house of worship for about 200 people and also to have a fellowship hall and meeting, reading and study rooms, a kitchen/pantry and classrooms, the issue of parking remains. The church is asking the Planning Board on June 4 to approve three onsite parking spaces and the use of 47 municipal parking spaces.
On my investigatory walk Tuesday, I saw a city parking lot catty-corner to the site that was largely vacant except for pairs and trios of Latino men apparently waiting for employment. I don't know which lot it was, but for the past case the applicant cited 76 spaces in Lot 2 and 138 in Lot 9.
This was an early indication of the trend to try to trade off parking in city lots for onsite parking. Below is an image of a page in my notebook of development and redevelopment proposals over the past five years. The prior applicant sought to use two nearby sites for parking, but both owners declined, leading to the pitch for city-owned spaces.
Regarding other questions that have come up, the two lots are now owned by the Allegheny East Conference of the Seventh Day Adventists and neither is exempt. Tax officials confirmed that a church does not automatically get exempt status, but must apply for it.
Some oldtimers may recall the Rose of Sharon case, where the church bought some property across the street from the church and ran up a tax tab because it was not exempt. But the City Council at the time voted to excuse the $35,000 or so in back taxes because the church supposedly did not know the rules. A certain councilwoman who was a member of the church caused a bit of scandal by voting on the matter when some thought she should have recused herself.
As long as I was at City Hall Tuesday, I looked in the back of the tax book and found out that exempt church property has a total value of $96,256,800, which is 7.6 percent of the total value of all property, namely $1,260,499,421. By contrast, exempt public schools at $63,090,400 stand at 5 percent of the total value of all property. Storefront churches in leased spaces are not tax-exempt and there are many of them. The city could use a good analysis of its current commercial building usage.