Not surprisingly, churches and other religious buildings are struggling with the collapse of real estate prices. Many have been caught with over-optimistic mortgages, declining property values, and shrinking yields from the collection plate. A Wall Street Journal story (Jan. 25) reports that nearly 200 religious facilities have been foreclosed on by banks since 2008, compared to virtually none in the previous decade.
When congregations can no longer support churches, or choose to move to the suburbs, they have been tempted to cash in on the high property value of an old church, particularly if it's downtown or in a desirable residential neighborhood. Likewise, these often-handsome older buildings can be adapted for new uses such as performance venues, housing, or educational uses. Pharmacies have been specializing in buying old churches, tearing them down, and putting up CVS or Walgreen drug stores. (Often touching off big fights with historic preservationists.)
Buying a faltering church is far from simple, as I had occasion to find out when I embarked with others on a decade-long quest that eventuated in Town Hall Seattle, a First Hill civic and performance venue in a former Christian Science Church. Perhaps my saga is instructive.
There are several other such sagas in recent Seattle history. First United Methodist Church, near Seattle's government center, was sold recently, after years of debate, though no use has yet been found for the old sanctuary. An ambitious effort to sell off some now-outsized University-District churches, combining several of them into a new Ecumenical Campus, is in a fragile state. Project proponents report they are "struggling to achieve a balance between project costs and resources, and reduced real estate values rank among the greatest challenges." Other Christian Science churches have been sold, one converted to condominiums, another sold (as is often the case) to rising evangelical denominations.
The first difficulty in such adaptive reuses is getting the congregation agreed on a sale. One developer, often burned in these negotiations, puts it this way: "Typically there is a group that wants to sell, and another group that is very opposed. So two committees are formed and the minister is put in the awkward position of trying to resolve the differences. Make a decision, however, and half the church will be so angry that it leaves the fold, killing the church in the process of saving it. So the minister almost always has only one wise course, after much prayer, and that is — to stall."
Most developers eventually give up. It took us eight years and seven offers to finally purchase the handsome old (1916) Fourth Church of Christ Scientist on First Hill, now the thriving Town Hall, and many times we were close to giving up. As is typical, the tiny congregation was bitterly divided, thereby discouraging new members who might have saved it.
Then there are inherent difficulties pertaining to zoning and land use. Some of these churches have cemetaries surrounding them, an exceedingly difficult piece of land to develop. Many are historic, and so dramatic changes of the building, or razing it, usually provoke big fights with local preservationists. Those with lots of religious symbolism will turn off potential future users. And these buildings can have serious built-in design limitations. Most have tiny lobbies or foyers, for instance, which makes them hard to adapt for performance venues.
The zoning issues can also be vexing. Many of these churches were once anchors to residential districts that closed in around them. That means limited parking, and they are in a neighborhood that is accustomed to having a handsome landmark that draws little traffic except on Sundays. Conversion to a performance venue or a use such as the House of Blues (which had its eyes on the future Town Hall as well as the downtown First United Methodist Church) does wonders to arm the neighbors. Residential zoning also severely limits the kinds of new uses (hotels, offices, retail) that could go into the old sanctuary.
Like what you just read? Support high quality local journalism. Become a member of Crosscut today!