Saturday, April 12, 2014

Friendly Will Baptist Church and its Tribulations with HARC

Published in the Sun April 9, 2014

Pastor Rudy Williams and the Friendly Will Baptist Church

In 1945, the members of Friendly Will Baptist Church built their church building on their own property at the end of 14th Street, right beside the old railroad tracks and across the street from the cotton gin.  On the east side of the courthouse the streets were paved, but Friendly Will was on the poor side of town and their part of 14th Street was just a gravel road with a drainage ditch beside it.  The war was ending and people didn’t have much.  Black people had even less.  No architects drew up plans for the church building.  The men of the church who had building experience just did the best they could with what they had.  They made a rubble foundation for some stone walls held together with plaster.  They hammered together some two by fours to make trusses for a roof.  Where the two by fours weren’t long enough, they spliced them together.  They ran electricity to the building, but made do with outhouses instead of indoor plumbing.

The resulting church was rustic.  It looked a bit like a Spanish mission, except that the missions were about 200 years older and a lot fancier and sturdier.

Fast forward 68 years and the Friendly Will congregation has grown from 60 to 250 members.  Fourteenth Street has been paved, the railroad tracks are gone, and the cotton gin has been replaced by apartments.  A Jack-in-the-Box has popped up on University.  The church has added youth programs, women’s groups, counseling sessions, prison ministry, and an addiction recovery ministry.  Even though indoor bathrooms were installed long ago, and a meeting room was added in the 1980’s, the facility is no longer big enough.  After thousands of dollars of attempted repairs the roof still leaks.  The rubble foundation is collapsing so the floor is a rolling landscape of hills and valleys.  Once a skunk crawled under the floor to die, and worship had to be cancelled until the smell aired out.  According to Pastor Rudy Williams, people come to visit the church, but seeing the wavy floor, the crooked windows, and the holes in the ceiling makes them ask, “Is this all you’ve got?”  Often they don’t come back.

The congregation has been collecting money and pledges for a new church building to meet their needs.  They hired Jimmy Jacobs Construction to design a 7400 square foot building, and applied for a permit to demolish the old church.  A building inspector from the city came out, and what he found was so far out of code that he condemned the old church as structurally unsafe, locked the doors, and told the pastor to conduct services elsewhere.

You would think that a demolition permit would be a cinch once the building is condemned as an imminent threat to public health and safety.  Wrong.  Enter the Historic and Architectural Review Commission (HARC).  This board gets to pass judgment on renovations, alterations, maintenance, and demolition of any building that appears on a list of “historic” priority structures, as the Friendly Will Baptist Church does.  Even though the church owned this piece of property since 1936 and built the building with their own hands, used the building for 68 years, maintained it as well as they could with limited resources over that entire period, and now find themselves evicted from their too small and unsafe facility, the HARC said that they could not tear it down, but should instead look for the $2 million required to salvage the cute faux Spanish mission facade.  Or move to a new location.

HARC told Pastor Williams that the church was an asset to the African-American community.  Williams knew that in its present condition, it was a not an asset, but a liability.

This story sounds like way too much interference in private property decisions.  Time marches on.  We should be happy when people want to upgrade and modernize a bit of our city, especially in the historic district.  Old properties are expensive enough to own without somebody else telling you what you can do and how it has to look when you finish.  As it is now, property owners are so reluctant to deal with the piles of paperwork that they procrastinate on needed renovation.  Take a drive through Old Town to see many examples of “demolition by neglect.”  A rebellious homeowner who ignore the rules and begins his project without a blessing by HARC risks being punished with a stop work order, delaying progress for months.

Rather than a regulatory commission, what if we had a group of donors who would reward property owners who voluntarily meet certain historical and architectural guidelines?  They could call themselves Lovers of Architectural Victorianism Investing in Sustaining History (LAVISH) or Citizens Artistically Saving our Heritage (CASH).  Then we would have people standing in line to keep gingerbread trim on the honeysuckled verandas of old Georgetown. 

The Friendly Will story has a happy ending.  The congregation appealed HARC’s decision, and the city council approved the demolition permit.  Friendly Will gets a modern facility which will truly be an asset to the community.  The old church’s cornerstone and some of the stones from the fa├žade will be used to construct a memorial to those hardworking ancestors who meant to build a church, not a monument.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Driving Electric - Politely

Published in the Sun March 26, 2014

An electric car does not “fill up” as quickly as a gasoline car.  Gasoline is such an energy marvel.  You just pour into your tank and “Voila!” you can drive for hundreds of miles.  Of course, this convenience is the magic of fossil fuels and why we are so loathe to switch to alternative fuels.  A battery, on the other hand, takes some time to recharge, which is why recharging stations are not located at gas stations.  There is nothing to do at a gas station while your car charges, unless you really love fountain drinks, Ding-Dongs, and dirty restrooms.

Car charging stations are best located where people hang out for a while.  Georgetown was pretty smart about their charging stations.  There are a couple at the recreation center, one at the library, and two separate locations downtown.  (There needs to be one at Wolf Ranch as well, and at Southwestern.)

Every new technology develops an etiquette for its use, but sometimes that etiquette is slow to appear.  The etiquette for cell phones is still evolving, which you know if you have ever tried to talk to someone who is using his cell phone under the table, a situation which makes me want to grab the phone like a teacher confiscating a furtive note passed between students.  “Now Jeremy and Marissa, let’s share your little private conversation with all the other children.”

So what is proper etiquette for car charging stations?  It should go without saying that if you drive a gasoline car (yes even a hybrid), you should never park in a charging spot.  Even if you resent the concept of electric cars and believe from the bottom of your heart that God created parking places for pickup trucks, you should still never park in a charging spot.  Almost 96,000 electric vehicles were sold in the US in 2013, and more electric vehicles on the road means more people are looking for a charge.  Somebody might be arriving from another town and counting on that charging station for enough electrons to get home.  Round Rock Nissan sold 40 Leafs last year, practically in Georgetown’s backyard.  There are currently over 400 Tesla owners in Texas.   Leaf owners are rather mild-mannered and usually don’t react if you hog the electric parking spot, but you do not want to mess with someone who drives a Tesla.

Last week I took my Leaf to the Arboretum.  I can make it back from the Arboretum on one charge, but charging allows for some extra side trips and a margin of error.  There is one charger with two designated parking spaces in the parking lot behind Barnes and Nobles.  A Leaf was hooked up to the charger but had finished charging, as indicated by the lights on the dashboard, a code that Leaf owners can easily recognize.  The second designated space was occupied by an SUV, in spite of the fact that the parking lot was virtually empty.  Let’s give the driver the benefit of the doubt and say that when he parked absolutely no other spaces were available, and he must have gone into the Cheesecake Factory whereupon he suffered a massive heart attack, and was even now lying prostrate in the ICU, his recovery hampered by extreme guilt over preventing me from charging my car.  I parked on the far side of the SUV, thinking that just maybe the cord would reach.  Touching somebody else’s car in a garage breaks some kind of modern automotive taboo, but the other Leaf was definitely finished charging, so I unplugged it, swiped my own Chargepoint card, and tried to stretch the cord past the heart attack victim’s SUV.  It was not to be.  The cord was about three feet too short.  I thought about leaving a note but decided that would not improve my karma, and besides, he had probably suffered enough already.