‘It’s a positive.’ Lexington to spend $1.5 million on parking for downtown Black church

After more than five years of back and forth, the city of Lexington and a historic Black downtown church have reached an initial agreement on parking for the church.

The Lexington-Fayette Urban County Council gave first reading Thursday night to a resolution setting aside $1 million in federal coronavirus relief money to help Main Street Baptist Church reconfigure and develop more parking on what was once the Jefferson Street bridge and its properties on Main Street.

A final vote is expected Tuesday.

The church has been working with CRW engineers on a plan to reconfigure parking on its property so it can get more spaces on the former entrance to the Jefferson Street bridge and its properties, which are on both sides of Jefferson Street, said Sally Hamilton, the chief administrative officer for the city of Lexington.

The Jefferson Street bridge was torn down several years ago to make room for the Central Bank Center expansion. The city spent $90,000 in 2018 to construct temporary parking for the church on the former entrance to the bridge.

The city will use $1 million from American Rescue Plan Act money and an additional $500,00 that was set side for a possible parking solution in the current-year budget, Hamilton said.

The move on Thursday night was to earmark money for the project, the first step, Hamilton said.

“After the first of the year, we will hopefully return to council with an agreement,” she said.

Ralph Hill, a deacon at Main Street Baptist Church who has been involved in the negotiations, confirmed the tentative agreement.

“Right now we are in negotiations with the city for parking that is critical for our survival,” Hill said. “We are working out the details and will hopefully have more information sometime in the near future.”

Main Street Baptist Church parishioners have used a parking lot directly behind its property that was lost to the expansion of Central Bank Center and will soon be part of the new 10-acre Town Branch Park.

The church had a verbal agreement with former Mayor Scott Baesler and the Lexington Center Corporation, which oversees Central Bank Center, to use the parking lot for church services for three decades.

The church was in the process of acquiring a property behind the Mary Todd Lincoln House that eventually burned down. The city then condemned the property and acquired it, thwarting the church’s efforts to buy the property for additional parking, according to church leaders.

That’s what led to the agreement with Baesler and Lexington Center Corporation officials.

When the city announced plans for the expansion of Central Bank Center and for the new Town Branch Park, Main Street Baptist officials said they were never consulted and said without parking the historic Black church may have to leave its Main Street location, where it has been for more than 150 years.

Church leaders have asked the city to honor the long-standing verbal agreement to provide parking for the church.

The city and the church have been in negotiations for years over the parking issue. Church leaders have attended council meetings and held press conferences asking the city to address the long-standing parking issues at the church.

“It’s a positive step forward,” Hamilton said of the tentative agreement.

The city will bid and oversee the project because public money is being used to build the parking. The church has also agreed to allow the public to use parking on the property when there are no church services. The public has to have access to the parking for some of the time because taxpayer money is being used to construct the parking, Hamilton said.

In addition to the on-site parking, church officials will be allowed to use the Central Bank Center garage when there are no events at Central Bank Center, officials have said.

The church has a long and storied history in Lexington. Free Black people and freed slaves founded the church in 1862 on land that was previously owned by the family of Mary Todd Lincoln. Abraham Lincoln’s signature is on the original deed for the property at 582 W. Main Street, where the church has been for 155 years. The church later purchased 608 and 610 W. Main Street.