First Nazareth Baptist Church plans a community center along Gervais Street replete with a gym, senior services, a day care and a banquet hall for 250 people, its architect told the Columbia Planning Commission on Monday.
But members took no position on whether the city should rezone residential property in a historic neighborhood for the project.
Instead, church trustee Willie Williams withdrew his request for a general-commercial designation, saying he would return with a less-intense zoning proposal.
“We’d like to have the support of staff and the planning commission and the neighborhood,” Williams said. “If we can’t get it, we’ll have to move on.”
The project has uncovered tensions in the historic Waverly community, where the church has bought up two dozen parcels, some with homes on them.
On July 27, a week after a historic marker was erected at the site, the church tore down a dilapidated brick building where a groundbreaking civil rights leader, George Elmore, ran a store in the 1940s. Elmore filed a lawsuit challenging the all-white primary elections in South Carolina, causing retribution that forced him out of business.
The demolition has produced a budding community discussion about the need to save Columbia’s civil rights-era history.
Monday evening, the city’s planning director, Krista Hampton, said she and her staff did not support the church’s request for a general commercial, or C-3, designation. She recommended a more restrictive designation that still could allow the 5,000- to 6,000-square-foot restaurant planned by the church.
Architect Ted Talmage gave a brief description of the project that he said would be built in brick matching the massive sanctuary in the next block, at Millwood Avenue and Gervais Street. He said it would include a gym with a walking track around it, classrooms, offices and a restaurant that could be rented for weddings and conventions.
Said Williams: “Our main objective is to have parking with the church, community center and restaurant. We have no ulterior motive to do anything else.”
Warner Wells, who also spoke on behalf of the project, likened it to West Columbia’s Brookland Baptist Church.
It was not clear whether the restaurant, which the architect called a banquet hall, would serve the public.
Two residents objected.
“A parking lot, a conference center, a restaurant: They just don’t fit, and you’d be doing the community a grave injustice if you let that come in,” Chip Harriford said.
Sylvie Dassau added, “Little by little, the community is eaten by commercial zoning.”