The Big Box Church

 

By Dom Nozzi

December 11, 2003

As I write this, the current controversy in Gainesville FL is that the local community college downtown is trying to demolish two historic homes in a walkable, historic neighborhood abutting them. I’ve not heard this, but will be surprised if the college doesn’t end up putting in surface parking once they obliterate the houses. It is causing quite an outcry from the neighborhood and from the historic folks.

The University of Florida (and the Shands/Alachua General Hospital complex east of the university) has done their part to undermine nearby neighborhoods. Much of Shands/AGH is now surface parking. Quite a large number of historic homes were leveled to put in those seas of asphalt.

These days, one of the most common issue we city planners see raised in our planning newsletters and magazines is the emergence of the “Big Box Church” (the godly version of Big Box retailers such as Wal-Mart). There have been a lot of articles published in the church-campus4professional planning literature about churches growing enormously in size. To be healthy is to have lots of parishioners, which means that many churches now strive to serve a huge region. That, of course, means huge parking lots are imperative. Combined with recent US Supreme Court rulings and congressional action which severely restricts local governments from regulating churches (due to alleged “freedom of religion” intrusions), most communities (including Gainesville) are terrified of imposing even the most trivial land development regulations on churches. There is now much less planners can do anything to protect neighborhoods by restricting how much parking a church can have, or imposing noise limits on them, or even imposing special landscaping or building location or zoning rules. Homes near these new mega-churches now have little or no protection against loud churches or parishioners speeding through the neighborhoods or parking in people’s front yards.

There has been much talk about the downtown Episcopal Church here in Gainesville having problems and thinking about re-locating to Sprawlsville.

Why?

Not enough parking for the parishioners.

I’m sure they pray about leveling City Hall to install a new parking lot…

In the past (decades ago?), churches and hospitals and small schools were healthy and walkable for neighborhoods. In fact, like public grade schools, I’d argue that human-scaled, walkable, neighborhood-based colleges, hospitals and churches are essential ingredients in a healthy neighborhood. But the fact that we now must assume that everyone will drive everywhere means that such places MUST level buildings in order to install more and more surface parking.

Tragic.

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Filed under Transportation, Urban Design

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