Rick Poppitz
Special to The Gardner News
Two new members, Scott Boden and Joe Gardenhire, took their seats on the Gardner Planning Commission at the Mar. 27 meeting. In addition, the commission considered and approved plans to re-purpose the old Sacred Heart Catholic Church .

Submitted photo

Sacred Heart Catholic Church
At the March 27 Gardner Planning Commission meeting, former Mayor Carol Lehman spoke on behalf of Connie Wright, who has purchased the historic Catholic Church and plans to turn it into an event center. The church was built in the 1880’s.
Wright shared the ‘vision’ for the project and assured the commission the historic features of the chapel would be preserved.
“This is the history of Gardner and where we need to proceed with the highest degree of care and respect. Our goal with this church is to restore, versus remodel, restore it to its original glory and make it once again a beautiful landmark for Gardner and the Catholic community,” said Wright.
She said it would be a positive impact on the downtown corridor vision.
Lehman, resident and former mayor, spoke next and recommended Wright and the project. She said due to the proximity to downtown, the rezoning seems appropriate and logical, and she was excited about the proposed use.
Lehman said she had seen Wright’s work and knew what she could do.
“This event venue will be nothing short of first class […] and it will soon become a sought after event venue throughout Johnson County and beyond,” said Lehman.
During a public hearing to consider rezoning at 122, 130 & 136 E. Warren Street, from R-5 and C-1 to CP-1 for approximately 1.65 acres and associated preliminary development plan located, Michelle Leininger, principal planner, gave the staff presentation.
The Warren property is the old Sacred Heart Catholic Church, on the block of Warren Street from Center to Elm. The applicant requests rezoning and approval of preliminary development plan to re-purpose the three existing buildings on the property.
The plan is to improve all three buildings on the property and make them into an event center.
The chapel was constructed in the late 1800’s and remodeled at various times since. The house was constructed in the mid 1960’s and the event hall in the late 1980’s.
The staff considers the chapel as a historic and iconic structure in the community and says by retaining the structures onsite, the character of the area will be maintained.
The project is consistent with the soon to be adopted Gardner Main Street Corridor Plan.
Planned chapel improvements include:  structurally addressing the steeple, roof, and foundation;  replacing windows, flooring, HVAC system; construct an altar/stage; an ADA approved restroom, and a bridal dressing area.
The residential structure will get a new roof, new floors, expanded bedroom suits, a commons area, outdoor gathering area, and total upgrade of the kitchen. It will be available for overnight stays prior to the wedding day, as well as rehearsal dinners.
The event center upgrade will include new windows, updated entrance, a glass atrium, a caterers kitchen,  ADA bathrooms, and new HVAC system. It will be used as a multipurpose center focusing on wedding receptions but also catering to club meetings, birthday parties, family reunions, showers, business/corporate meetings, post funeral gatherings, etc.
There were a number of requested deviations from code, all of which pertained to parking lots or sidewalks.
For this use, code calls for 80 parking spots and this project has 49. Applicant notes there are 31 more if on street parking is added. Additionally the applicant has an agreement with the owner of Bruce Funeral Home to utilize their parking lot, which is 54 stalls, when they are not using the lot.
Staff supported the deviation.
There is a current strip of parking directly in front of the church on Center Street that will be removed  and replaced with grass at Public Works request.
Expecting increased traffic in the alley on the north side of the property, Public Works also asks that the applicant do some improvement there.
“Public works has asked that the applicant provide one way signs in the alley, that will now be one way from west to east, and they also have asked that the applicants improve the alley aprons at both ends of the street,” said Leininger.
Staff recommended approval subject to two conditions – 1 – the parcels are combined through the preliminary and final plat processes prior to the issuance of a building permit, 2 – Add a minimum 5 foot wide sidewalk from the parking spaces in the rear of the event hall to the rear door.
The public hearing was opened with Connie Wright, applicant, who introduced herself and the team involved in the project. Jeremy Styno, contractor, and Elizabeth Schultz, architect, were in attendance and answered technical and planning questions.
In commission discussion, Scott Boden, commission member, asked if there was any concern about pedestrian traffic crossing the busy Center Street when guests use the funeral home parking lot.
Schultz said they would work with the city to schedule around traffic patterns and make efforts to reduce illegal or dangerous crossings.
Tim Brady, commission member, asked about potential noise from reception parties.
Schultz said the reception hall would basically be gutted and new acoustic interiors would better contain the inside sounds.
Boden made the motion to recommend approval to city council, seconded by Heath Freeman, commission member, and followed by a vote of all in favor.