Churches Prevail In Fight With Preservationists

Apr 2, 2019

The church at 302 Academy Street in Kalamazoo.
Credit Zoë Jackson / WMUK

Several weeks of contention between churches and the Historic Preservation Commission came to a head at the Kalamazoo City Commission meeting on April 1.

The Historic Preservation Commission held their first public meeting to potentially establish a historic district in Church Square and at former Nazareth College buildings back in February.

The City Commission viewed the Preservation Commission’s actions as knee-jerk responses to property owners who plan to deconstruct parts of their property for new use. City Commissioners voted 4 to 3 to put a stop to both proposed districts. 

Sister Kathy Brazda, the president of the Congregation of the Sisters of St. Joseph, says she's thankful that the sisters will be able to move to their new building on the property, and can move forward with plans to invest money they’d save by taking down Nazareth College buildings, into the community.

“We’re grateful for the time the commission put to deliberate this and listen to our request, and we’re grateful that we can go ahead with plans for our sisters, as well as now look at new ways we can minister and serve in Kalamazoo,” Brazda says.  

About 20 sisters stood during the meeting in support of their efforts, and other public commenters spoke in their favor said Eileen Biehl, who serves as communications manager for some of the sisters’ projects.

“It’s a very big deal, we’ve had a lot of sisters that have had their heart and soul invested in the community, and this is how we operate. We’re in this together. We weren’t surprised that there were a lot of people here. We were glad, we were glad,” says Biehl.  

The City Commission’s decision to direct the Historic Preservation Commission to “suspend and undertake no further action toward the possible establishment of a either a Bronson Park or Nazareth Campus Local Historic District,” also allows Pastor Nathan Dannison and the First Congregational Church to move forward with their plans for a children’s nature park at the location.

“One of the cool things about that project is it’s going to maintain the historic footprint of that building, and it’s also going to make it possible for us to do some repairs on the First Baptist Church and the First Congregational Church.”

Pam O’Connor, a Kalamazoo resident who has worked closely with the preservation commission acknowledged that this effort was last minute, once it became clear that the demolition of 302 Academy Street was imminent.

“I am of course, as a person who supports preservation, disappointed by the final vote tonight," she said.

"I think there still exists a significant lack of understanding of the tool that historic preservation can be for great communities, and I support it because I think Kalamazoo is one. As a longtime resident since the 1960’s, I’ve seen the things that we’ve been able to accomplish working together.”