Despite breakthrough in First Lutheran bell tower conflict, community still divided

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Posted at 6:46 PM, Apr 13, 2022

CINCINNATI — An agreement reached between First Lutheran Church and OTR Adopt has sown seeds of hope that the two parties will eventually resolve their longstanding conflict over the historic, though reportedly dangerous bell tower. Still, it will do little to quell the hostility the polarizing situation has fostered between those for and against the tower’s demolition.

An email from First Lutheran Church sent to WCPO Wednesday says, “First Lutheran Church and OTR A.D.O.P.T. have reached an agreement for an independent engineer to investigate, assess, and provide a written report regarding the repairs needed to the First Lutheran Church bell tower.”

The statement comes after outspoken church members and supporters of the tower’s preservation effort have been bitterly divided on whether to have a third engineering firm evaluate the conditions and necessary repairs for the tower. First Lutheran Church’s contracted engineering firm, THP Engineering, argued in a report that the tower would need repairs costing upwards of $3.5 million to address stability and water damage concerns. The church and its engineering team also sought to reinforce the tower in the event of a natural weather event like a hurricane, in part accounting for the steep cost.

However, Cromwell & Associates, LLC, an engineering firm commissioned by historic preservation organization OTR Adopt, countered THP’s report by saying the tower only needs basic stabilization measures costing about $400,000. Citing this assessment, OTR Adopt has offered First Lutheran Church financial packages including $400,000 for the bell tower’s repair using donations from concerned individuals and community stakeholders like the Cincinnati Preservation Association.

OTR Adopt director Danny Klingler has validated the church’s safety concerns and desire to reinforce the structure, but he also said concerns over the tower’s risk to the public and its potential to collapse were being blown out of proportion.

In past interviews with WCPO, First Lutheran pastor Brian Ferguson once expressed resistance to the idea of having a third party assess what repairs were needed for the tower and how much it would cost. He said he and his fellow church leaders had confidence in THP’s assessment and were disinterested in challenging it with another firm’s evaluation. However, Klingler and several of his contemporaries in the historic preservation space have expressed support for the idea, arguing it could provide an appropriate and affordable solution from a neutral observer.

Paul Muller, the executive director of the Cincinnati Preservation Association, is one of the local experts who has been behind the idea of getting another engineer involved. Muller says the CPA had agreed to contribute $110,000 towards the $400,000 balance to help restabilize the tower with rudimentary repairs.

“[T]here are foundations out there that have come forward to us that said, you know, ‘[I]f this comes together and it needs money, we're there,’” Muller said. “That will not work at the $3 million level and I understand that completely. But if there is a repair that's in the range of $400,000, and I think that's what it looks like, that money is easily there.”

“Even structural engineering has an art component to it, and has a lot of interpretation," said Steve Kenat, another historic preservation advocate. "So if one organization believes that the building can be saved, and the city is okay with saving the tower as opposed to a full-on removal, it seems like that would be more appropriate for what we're trying to do in the neighborhood — and preserve the architecture that's here.”

Looming above is the question of whether the third engineering firm will be partial to THP Engineering’s assessment or the report issued by Cromwell & Associates. There is also the possibility that the additional firm will present new repair and funding solutions that have yet to be put forward by either of the two prior firms. It is unclear at this time if First Lutheran and OTR Adopt have settled on which engineering firm will issue the third report.

Even with this breakthrough, it likely will never obscure the heated, divisive conflict Over-the-Rhine has seen slowly unfold between the congregants and the preservationists as they’ve debated over the best solution for the tower. There are several reasons why the conflict has become so contentious.

Members of First Lutheran say they are frustrated that so much of the pushback on their already extensively-considered plans to demolish the bell tower has been coming from people outside of the congregation. Some share Ferguson’s concerns that the church will run out of money as it endures the legal battle opposite OTR Adopt over the tower.

They also worry about the tower continuing to pose an imminent danger to anyone in proximity to the church. There are several buildings on either side of the church with Washington Park just across the street. Also, a streetcar stop is located on the sidewalk right in front of the building.

“This church provides food and clothing, AA meetings, NA meetings,” said Linda Ziegler. She is the fourth generation in her family to be a member of First Lutheran Church. “Clients from these agencies worship here. And if this church goes away, as we know it, all that goes away, too. [I]t's just ridiculous that we're even at this point.”

Ziegler also vocalized her skepticism over OTR Adopt’s estimate that the necessary repairs for the tower would only cost approximately $400,000. Several people in the congregation share this skepticism, as well as whether this amount of money is even readily available.

“That money that [Klingler] has is not being put towards a fix that will benefit the generations down the road. It's a band-aid. And we don't want to put a band-aid on the bell tower,” said church member Cindy Schrader.

Congregants also noted they have been out of the building for so long because of concerns that the tower could fall. They say that’s meant the church has had to miss out on holding significant community events like holding funerals for prominent, beloved figures and taking part in global causes like the worldwide day of Prayer for Ukraine.

“I'm a social worker, I'm not an engineer. I believe we have hired the best folks, and I believe what they say,” Ziegler said, speaking of the church’s engineering firm, THP. “[T]he belltower to me is not the church. The church is a living thing. And the congregation, if we have to take it down to fix it correctly for the next 100 years, fine. Let's take it down and rebuild it. I think we're getting way too precious about, you know, historical things.”

On the other hand, those who have backgrounds in historic preservation and are advocating for the tower to stay intact point out they have their own attachments to the church building—even if they are not members of the First Lutheran Church congregation. They argue that the perspectives of stakeholders in Over-the-Rhine should be considered in the plans for the tower because of the church’s historical significance. The First Lutheran Church building has been a celebrated fixture in the neighborhood for almost 130 years. It is a detail about the building preservationists feel should not be taken lightly.

“The historic buildings don't belong to the individual who has it in their title right now. It belongs to the whole community. So the whole community, myself included, want to reach out and help preserve that,” said Julie Fay, a historic preservation advocate.

Fay, Kenat and a handful of other individual preservationists WCPO spoke with say they have come out offering to donate money to the bell tower’s restoration. A number of the preservationists expressed their issue with First Lutheran’s past resistance to input from the wider Cincinnati society. They say that resistance conflicts with the church’s long-stated values of fostering community and uplifting diverse voices.

Preservationists also said some of the church’s biggest frustrations in the bell tower have been self-imposed. They point out that the city’s buildings department didn’t mandate that the congregation stay out of the building despite the tower’s acknowledged stability issues and said there is money already available for the church to make the necessary repairs.

[T]he building code allows existing buildings to maintain their own integrity from the original time that they were designed,” Kenat said. "This building is 130 years old. It's sustained the test of time."

Kenat said the church can focus on using donations to make basic stabilization measures now, and add more cosmetic changes and reinforcements later.

Kevin Pape, president of the preservation organization Over-the-Rhine Foundation, said he also offered to donate money to the tower’s restoration and echoed Muller’s comment that money already pledged for the steeple’s repair could still be paid to the church.

Pape said the church building’s architect, Charles Crapsey of Crapsey & Brown, had a good reputation for having built several other similar churches across the country that are still in good condition. He also said that he has been partial towards Cromwell & Associates’ assessment of the tower’s condition after having talked to other engineers who have looked at both reports. However, he had joined calls for another engineering firm to come in and make another, more objective assessment.

“Let's look critically at both of them evaluate strengths or weaknesses, and then determine a course of action,” Pape said. “[T]he outcome needs to work for the congregation as well as the building itself…[W]e're all invested in a solution that works for the church…”

The fact that both sides are so invested in the outcome of the tower, and have so fiercely defended their contrasting ideas on the best solution has captured the fascination of onlookers to the conflict. However, it’s the more personal jabs lobbied against the leaders on both sides that have only deepened the suspense.

Frustrated supporters of keeping the bell tower intact suggest Ferguson and First Lutheran’s leadership have been obstinate and aloof to the full breadth of their options for preserving the tower. On the other hand, Klingler has weathered even more pointed attacks on his character and track record in rehabilitating buildings by way of his organization. Some church members like Schrader and Ziegler vocalized their suspicion of Klingler’s intentions for preserving the tower and for resorting to a lawsuit to do so.

“I think it's disingenuous of him to talk about how interested he is in restoration," Ziegler said. “There's a very real possibility, if he, if this continues, that the Church will, in fact, be destroyed. And then what?”

The suspicion has led to speculations of Klingler leveraging the drawn-out legal proceedings to impose financial hardship onto the church. Those speculations have fueled fears of First Lutheran losing its own building before a predatory developer could come in and acquire ownership. The speculations have also stirred confusion over OTR Adopt’s organizational practices and funding model as a historic preservation nonprofit.

Klingler issued a statement responding to the speculations saying: “The church is not a vacant dilapidated building that we’re trying to acquire. Our only goal is for the church to stay in the neighborhood. Not just stay in the neighborhood—stay in the building and us give them the money to restore their tower. That’s it.”

OTR Adopt’s project and press pages on its website lists dozens of case studies and news articles dating back to 2010 about the work it has done to identify vacant, blighted buildings in Over-the-Rhine and pair them with future owners and investors. The goal is for those buildings to ultimately be revitalized for modern use. OTR Adopt coordinates the rehabilitation of these buildings during these transactions.

An OTR Adopt spokesperson said the salaries of its two employees (one of them being Klingler) are funded by the organization’s earned income and grants. However, the vast majority of the money OTR Adopt receives from investors looking to acquire blighted buildings in the Over-the-Rhine area goes into paying for repairing and revitalizing those buildings. The representative said only a fraction of the money put forward by investors who are looking to take over ownership of these buildings goes into OTR Adopt’s administrative costs for organizing the pairings and rehabilitation work.

The organization points to a project it conducted in Corryville as an example of how provides its services and is then compensated by its partners. In 2016, the city had plans to tear down a property at 2648 Bellevue Avenue because it was extensively damaged by a fire. OTR Adopt says it intervened by finding a renovator, Corryville Properties, who could acquire the property and repair the fire damage so the property could be reused.

As a result, the city agreed to put up $38,000 to cover Corryville Properties’ costs for the buildings’ rehabilitation; that money would have otherwise been used for the demolition. OTR Adopt said it only received $5,000 for its administrative costs to facilitate the rehabilitation effort.

The organization’s tax filings from that year show OTR Adopt’s total revenue was $338,016 and that its net income was $213,229. However, its functional expenses were $124,787, its liabilities were listed at $191,522 and its income from rental properties was $25,322. Klingler’s compensation as the organization’s director was listed at $26,000. His salary is listed at comparable rates in the years since while the organization’s revenue later declined to the $200,000s and then to about $95,000 in 2019.

Klingler issued another statement responding to those skeptical of OTR Adopt’s work saying:

1. OTR ADOPT’s two employees earned $30,000 and $35,000 last year, respectively. They also each received a $1,000 reimbursement for insurance since the organization does not provide health insurance. No one is getting rich off of working here.
2. OTR ADOPT’s usual model is to acquire vacant, dilapidated buildings and stabilize them, then get them “adopted” by new owners. The proceeds from the sale of buildings are then used to save more vacant, dilapidated buildings. 
3. First Lutheran Church is not that. They are a thriving church community that needs to stay in the community. We have raised funds to pay for the stabilization of their bell tower.

Klingler’s contemporaries in the historic preservation and redevelopment community shut down the doubts his detractors have been placing on his and OTR Adopt’s credibility. They said OTR Adopt has a respected track record in restoring severely blighted buildings that are ignored by others and making them viable in the real estate market again. Furthermore, Pape pointed out that Klingler only forges relationships with investors with the demonstrated means to renovate buildings and who can be trusted to follow through.

Other historic preservation advocates acknowledge that Klingler may be seen by some developers and property owners as a nuisance. Like with First Lutheran, Klingler has come out and publicly pushed back against other development efforts like a controversial project at Liberty & Elm Streets and the Logan Street Garage in the name of historic preservation.

However, despite having antagonized powerful figures and institutions through his advocacy work, Klingler’s supporters say questioning his motives is unfair and practically inconceivable. In their eyes, Klingler has long proven that preserving Cincinnati’s historic districts is his life’s passion through the years he has spent rehabilitating its oldest, yet most promising buildings.

Pape said he and his wife bought a building from OTR Adopt, renovated it and brought it back to contemporary use. He says if it weren’t for Klingler, the building might have been demolished.

“The reality is that he takes on buildings that no one else is willing to take on because they are in such difficult condition. And he is willing to put his money in to secure them,” Pape said. “Is there a differential in the payout? Sure. But there's also a significant investment that Danny is making taking on a lot of risk for buildings that don't have a market otherwise.”

Architect Jennifer LeMasters Wirtz said Klingler was one of the most morally and ethically bound people she knows, and that she takes issue with some of First Lutheran’s church members disputing the integrity of OTR Adopt.

“[I]t doesn't feel as though they're giving him credit for, or taking really the time to learn about how and why Danny formed that organization, OTR Adopt, which was purely to preserve our historic district," Wirtz said. "Does he fight hard? Absolutely, you know. But any person with passion is going to do that."

The next court date in the legal proceedings between First Lutheran and the city versus OTR Adopt is now scheduled for late May. A Hamilton County Court judge is slated to decide on whether to issue a stay order requested by OTR Adopt that would effectively bar any activity with the bell tower until the legal battle has come to a close. Until then, those both for and against the bell tower’s removal restlessly await the outcome.

“I'm just anxious,” church member Beverly Kinney said. “[T]he church was was an anchor. And it seems like with all the turmoil that's around us today, whether it's the city or the nation or the world, that stability is missing.”

Monique John covers gentrification for WCPO 9. She is part of our Report For America donor-supported journalism program. Read more about RFA here.

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