The future of Bethel AME Church

June 19, 1996|By FRED B. SHOKEN

BETHEL AME Church, the largest African-American church in Baltimore, has outgrown its building at Druid Hill Avenue and Lanvale Street and is seeking to relocate. The city can not afford to lose this prestigious religious institution to the suburbs, but a suitable vacant site has not been found to meet Bethel's needs.

I have discovered a potential site for the new church within a few blocks of Bethel's current home. It is slightly smaller than the seven acres the church has requested, but if parking needs are handled through the construction of a garage, rather than a surface lot, the spatial needs of the church can be reduced.

I propose that Bethel AME Church rebuild on two city blocks now used as parking lots for the State Office Complex at Eutaw Place, Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, Madison Avenue and Hoffman Street.

Here is how my plan would work. The State of Maryland, which owns the land, would sell the property to the church. The church in turn would lease the northern parking lot to Baltimore to build a parking garage with 800-plus spaces. The garage would pay for itself by charging state employees market rate to park on regular workdays. It would be available free to those attending church functions which usually take place on weekends and evenings. Once these parking needs are resolved, the remaining city block is available to build the new church.

The garage would house ancillary church functions, such as a cafeteria, offices, television studio, classrooms, etc., on the ground level or other non-parking levels. A church structure would be built on the southernmost parking lot. The design would be inspired from traditional African architecture and would include a corner tower -- a new visual landmark on Baltimore's skyline.

The church's entrance would be on the north near the parking garage, but its new address would be on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, a prestigious address for a major African-American institution. The current church on Druid Hill Avenue could be maintained for ''satellite'' church services and other off-site needs.

Church and state

Some constitutionally minded citizens may balk at this idea and ask: What about the separation of church and state? A precedent exists for such an arrangement. A few years back the city built the Franklin Street Garage next to the Catholic Basilica in order to provide parking for businesses along Charles Street. The church owns the land, leases the property to the city for the garage, and gets to use it for parishioners attending church services.

It's win-win. The city obtained needed parking for Charles Street. The church obtained needed parking for parishioners. The weekday revenues from patrons of the garage pay for the cost of construction and operation. If this concept can work for the Basilica downtown, why not for Bethel AME Church at State Center?

Since we have a governor who is beholden to Baltimore's black community (which proved to be the margin of victory in his election), I am sure he would be willing to sell the land to the church. City officials would be willing to build the garage at this location, because it would easily pay for itself. Parking garages are often developed in order to keep businesses in town (ask Alex. Brown and Sons how this is done).

If the deal can be made, Bethel AME Church stays in the city next to the historic center of Baltimore's African-American community. The church obtains a centralized downtown location with sufficient parking and proximity to bus, light-rail and Metro stops. A partnership with state and local governments also provides parking for state employees working in the vicinity.

A new church on this highly visible site would be a bold architectural statement affirming Bethel AME Church as Baltimore's premier African-American religious institution. With all these benefits, why worry about a few constitutional gray areas?

Fred B. Shoken is a preservation activist. This is the second article in an occasional series on redevelopment in Baltimore.

Pub Date: 6/19/96

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