Curt Churchman is a businessman. He has owned and operated Fine Estate Art and Rugs in the Broad Ripple area since 2002. In mid-2014, he created another art venture business called Gallery Two. In several business and community circles he’s considered an upstanding business neighbor and all-around good guy.
So when the opportunity to expand his two businesses in one location close to his Meridian-Kessler home came along, he took it. Unfortunately, that set off a firestorm of activity that has left Churchman more than disgruntled and with a business in purgatory.
Right now, Churchman holds the lease with intent to buy for the building and property at 4186 Broadway St. The building once housed the College Avenue branch of the Indianapolis/Marion County Public Library from 1958 to 2000 until a new library was built across the street. The library board was able to lease the property to the Kaleidoscope Youth Center (KYC), a non-profit organization that provided afterschool and summer programs for children and youth in the neighborhood.
Eventually KYC purchased the property from the library board along with a parcel of land to the south that was turned into a small playground. However, KYC was forced to close its doors in early 2014 due to changes in United Way funding and other perils suffered by many non-profit organizations in the aftermath of a devastating national recession. The Martin Luther King Jr. Community Center absorbed Kaleidoscope’s programming and many other tangible assets leaving the Broadway Street property vacant.
According to the Meridian-Kessler Neighborhood Association (MKNA) website, members of the KYC board informed the association in October 2014 that there was interest in the land for commercial use. “I had a conversation with someone who was on the Kaleidoscope board who mentioned they planned to sell the building,” said Churchman. “After I thought about it, I told him I was interested. The building is perfect for me to consolidate my business into one location and it’s really close to where I live. I could walk to work from home.”
Churchman worked to acquire the property and made plans to relocate Fine Estate Arts & Rugs and Gallery Two in early January 2015. He knew there were a few things that needed to be done before his plans were final, but Churchman thought they would be systematic at best. Since the property is still zoned for library use, Churchman determined he needed approval for a variance to legally operate a commercial retail business. He went before the Meridian-Kessler Neighborhood Association to present his plans for the old library property more out of courtesy and as a long-standing residential member of the association. He didn’t expect MKNA to give him the thumbs down and actively petition against his business relocation plans.
In a statement posted to the MKNA website following their decision Jan. 7, the neighborhood association explained their desire to see the property used as a “neighborhood-service facility” for educational or social service needs.
"From our perspective, it did not appear the building was ever ‘listed for sale’ or marketed well enough to seek interested buyers who could fit a service-oriented use and allow the legacy and mission of KYC to be carried on in a different capacity,” the statement reads. “Ultimately, we feel this building and adjacent play area together is a community asset and it would be a loss for our neighborhood to allow the property to become a commercial use. While there is ample commercial space in the neighborhood, there is very little space reserved for these special uses. As stewards of the community, we must look at the bigger picture and do what we feel is the best long-term decision.”
Erin Kelley sits on the Land Use committee for the association and represents the region where the old KYC building is located. She says neighbors expressed concerns about creating a “slippery slope” if this variance was granted.
“What happens when Fine Estates closes?” said Kelley. “Since another "fine art and rug" gallery will likely not be the buyer, an entirely new variance issue will arise. And, if MKNA supports Fine Art's variance, it will make it harder to deny other commercial/retail variances that seek to move retail/commercial businesses into residential nodes.”
If given the opportunity, Kelley says MKNA believes they would be able to find the type of tenant the organization would like to see in the space.
“MKNA's opposition to Fine Estate's variance is not an opposition to Mr. Churchman's business. It's a great business!” said Kelley. “It is a support statement for the kinds of nonprofit/educational institutions that would serve to improve our community in meaningful and lasting ways.”
Churchman said he was somewhat shocked by MKNA’s decision, which came down to a 5-4 vote from the board.
“I wasn’t making any drastic changes to the building itself and had no plans to alter the exterior in anyway,” said Churchman. “I even said I would keep the playground and open it up for public access if I could find someone to assume the liability.”
MKNA brought up concerns about increased traffic in the area from a retail business along with lighting that could disturb neighbors. Churchman said both of those concerns are non-issues.
“I average 10 customers a day at best,” said Churchman. “That is nothing compared to the traffic in and out of the library. And my business is art. It’s not like it’s going to attract an unsavory crowd at all hours of the night.”
Churchman also agreed to have any variance he received expire once he left the property, so that it would once again be zoned as a library when he was gone.
“I see myself in business for another 20 years or so,” said Churchman. “My kids aren’t interested in running or inheriting the business so once I’m done, Fine Estate Art and Rugs is done too.”
The neighborhood association isn’t the ultimate authority on whether or not a property can be rezoned or a variance granted, but the Board of Zoning Appeals (BZA) takes its voice into consideration if there is opposition to a project. So Churchman continued preparations for his variance request despite the no-vote from MKNA. He set up a website to explain his plans and positions, established a petition on Change.org to gather support, obtained letters of support from members of the business and art communities and hoped for a quick resolution when the BZA met Feb. 3.
Then another obstacle brought everything to a stop.
“Apparently someone in the neighborhood filed for a continuance which delayed everything for another 30 days,” said Churchman.
According to the MKNA website, this unnamed individual “has been in contact with the KYC board in hopes of finding a resolution that benefits everyone.” Churchman said MKNA president Nick Colby contacted him to say that this person is in no way representing the association and the continuance took them by surprise as well. Churchman indicated he had heard that Saint Joan of Arc Catholic Church was interested in the property, but no formal bid or inquiry had been made. Parish Business Manager Molly Ellsworth took my call inquiring about the church’s interest in the property but said the church “was not speaking publicly about the property at this time.”
Meanwhile, Churchman said he hasn’t been contacted about any resolution since the continuance was granted and will continue to work toward the Board of Zoning Appeals meeting March 3.
But while he waits, Churchman’s business suffers.
“We’ve been dark for two months now,” said Churchman. “I’ve got some online prospects and some opportunities in terms of purchasing because I do buy as well as sell art. And I’ve been communicating with my customer base as to what’s going on.”
The MKNA has stated that should the variance be denied, they will work with Churchman to find an “appropriate location in the neighborhood for his business.” They also “regret that this decision may negatively impact him.” Churchman doesn’t want to think in those terms because he doesn’t believe he will find the right amount of space for the right price within Meridian-Kessler.
This battle is also eating into the funds and time Churchman set aside for minor renovations to the interior of the building. “I have plans to paint, add track lighting and other things for displays and things, but I don’t want to make the investment if things don’t go my way,” said Churchman.
His former business location at College and Kessler Boulevard is closed, so Churchman spends his business days at the Broadway location doing what he can, checking on his inventory and waiting for March 3. He says he has been visited by the Department of Code Enforcement a few times to make sure he’s not in violation of the of the current zoning status, something he believes has come from “tips” from his neighbors.
“I’ll just say it is a less than desirable state of affairs,” said Churchman. “It seems like they are trying to lawyer me into submission.”
The Board of Zoning Appeals meeting is currently scheduled to hear this case March 3 at 1 p.m. at the Indianapolis City-County Building.