CINCINNATI — OTR Adopt is reigniting its lawsuit against the city with an appeal to stop First Lutheran Church’s bell tower from being demolished.
In a statement, the organization released their side of a legal battle over whether to preserve the tower after months of negotiations with First Lutheran Church.
First Lutheran Church decided it would need to take the bell tower down because it did not have sufficient funds to fix structural damage found by contractors during a renovation effort for its building.
The church has been worshipping in the building for approximately 125 years. Engineers and the city’s building’s department deemed the building unsafe for people in and outside the property in November 2020, saying the tower could fall down at any time.
First Lutheran says the church was first approached by Klingler and a number of other community stakeholders in late 2020 to discuss options to maintain the tower. Klingler says OTR Adopt first filed a taxpayer demand lawsuit to stop the bell tower from being taken down last December.
The lawsuit was filed after extensive negotiations to identify and raise funds to keep the tower were unsuccessful. The lawsuit was dropped when OTR Adopt and First Lutheran Church went into mediation last month. However, Klingler says his organization filed the appeal on Wednesday after the mediation went nowhere.
“They’ve chosen this at every turn,” Klingler said. “They chose it after our first proposal in June, after our next one in August, after the next one in November by saying ‘no’ to incredibly generous offers.”
The core disconnect between OTR Adopt and First Lutheran Church appears to be an agreement over how much it would reasonably cost to secure the building.
Through the mediation, Klingler offered a proposal to raise and identify almost $400,000 to stabilize the building, bringing it up to the minimum requirements for historical building code. The proposal also offered to identify $118,000 funds for the church’s operations and to commit to a yearlong fundraising effort for another $1 million to do a full restoration of the church building’s facade. The proposal also offered for First Lutheran to keep $400,000 to operate that would have otherwise been spent on demolition.
The leadership of First Lutheran, however, believes this funding would be insufficient. Pastor Brian Ferguson of First Lutheran said that the church’s engineering firm, THP Engineering, priced the preservation costs for the tower at around $3.5 million dollars.
“As a property owner, it’s our responsibility," Ferguson said. "We are liable for what happens to it.”
Klinger strongly refutes the estimate, and has been working with Julie Cromwell & Associates LLC to inform OTR Adopt’s cost estimates and funding proposal to preserve the bell tower. He points out that $375,000 is what the city has identified as the cost to make the minimum stabilization repairs to bring the building up to code and remove the emergency order on the property.
While the church said there would need to be more funds and work done after the basic stabilization effort, Klinger said that additional work would aesthetic, nonessential changes. He said he believes that the danger of the building has been exaggerated and accused the church of circumventing protocols for being evaluated by the historic conservation board in its effort to demolish the bell tower. He also questioned why the church wouldn’t get a second opinion from another engineer who might identify a solution for the tower at a lower price.
Ferguson, on the other hand, said that the legal issues over the bell tower have dragged on for so long and have been so costly that he fears for the church’s financial future. He said that leadership is committed to keeping the church open but acknowledges that their ability to confidently assume its longevity has been put into question.
He expressed frustration that the city has taken a more active role in helping demolish the tower after it deemed it a hazard for the building and for the public domain of the sidewalk and streetcar stop in front of it. He says red tape over the historic review process and the ongoing litigations posed by OTR Adopt have been an obstacle to the congregation being able to worship in its church home — a church that is celebrating its 180th Anniversary on Sunday.
“It’s not terrible work we’re about here," Ferguson said. "We’re serving the community and in the 21st Century, that’s not easy to do, and having this type of challenge before us makes it nearly impossible.”
Ferguson said the church wants the city to give it a demolition permit for the tower, end the litigations with OTR Adopt and resume its services in the building once it's safe to re-enter. He also points out that the church explored options for preservation before moving forward with its demolition effort.
The church reached out to developers and the city’s urban conservator, Beth Johnson, to make it known that the tower might have to come down due to issues cited by the church’s contractors. Ferguson said the church’s goal was to see if it could find financial support that would account for the mounting costs of the project. However, he said there wasn’t much appetite to financially support the early effort to keep the tower because of financial strains brought on by the pandemic, the presidential election and the racial unrest of 2020.
Ferguson said he was told the church would have to undergo a seven-week process with the historic review board before taking down the structure. He said Johnson advised the church to contact the city’s chief building inspector to obtain an emergency demolition order because the tower had been deemed an urgent public hazard. Ferguson said he and his leadership team were motivated to act because they were wary of repeating a devastating building collapse scenario like last year’s Surfside condo collapse in Florida.
Klingler said he sees that as another overblown concern.
“It’s fearmongering,” Klingler said. “The church is so afraid that they refuse to make a decision that would be a win-win for everyone.” He argued that the Lutheran Church is a much sturdier, more reliable structure than modern buildings like the ill-fated Surfside condo.
A city official says the city cannot issue a demolition for First Lutheran to take down its bell tower until OTR Adopt’s appeal is decided on in the Hamilton County Court of Common Pleas.
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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