May 3, 2022 | By: Rick Reinhard, Principal at Niagara Consulting Group |
The Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development’s (DHCD) Virginia Main Street (VMS) program is incredibly excited to co-host the 2022 Main Street Now Conference alongside Main Street America in Richmond, Virginia, May 16-18. Get to know our state, host city, and Main Street communities through this special blog series! Learn more about this topic and hear from the author of this article by checking out his session at the conference: “New Roles for Old Houses of Worship on Main Street,” featuring an experienced panel of professionals.
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If figuring out what to do with empty department store buildings was the signature Main Street problem of the last 30-40 years, determining what to do with empty houses of worship is the dilemma of the next 30-40. Only it’s potentially a tougher one to solve.
Up to one-third of all houses of worship in the United States will have closed over the next few years. That’s 100,000 churches, temples, mosques, and the like. Nowhere will these closures hit as hard as in America’s historic and older Main Street districts. Think about it: Many towns and cities began as settlements and were built around houses of worship. A town’s historic main intersection often has faith institutions on two of the four corners. Residents and visitors recognize a city or a neighborhood by the steeples in its skyline. Religious institutions and their leaders often play an important role in civic life.
The closure of religious houses create headaches for Main Streets in rural and big cities alike, fundamentally changing the fabric of a downtown, whether it be through gaps between storefronts or increased density of office, residential, or retail units. Imagine the impact of these projected closures on Rome, Georgia (population 36,000), which has 15 churches in its six-by-four-block Main Street area or Orange, New Jersey (population 31,000), which has 16. Vacant buildings that once housed faith institutions in the middle of America’s big cities are being scooped up by developers as if there’s no tomorrow. The First Methodist Church of Seattle, for example, sold its 19th century property to developers for $30 million. Similar to other trends that impact the built environment of Main Streets, it is important to understand the causes, as well as the challenge and opportunities.
Houses of worship are emptying out for a number of reasons. Why? First, Americans overall are less religious than they used to be. Second, the overhead costs of operating buildings and maintaining grounds have climbed. Third, today’s worshipers are more mobile and more digitally connected than ever before – they can drive (not walk or ride their horses as in years past) to services and many houses of worship have embraced the power of the Internet to reach followers. Finally, the COVID-19 pandemic has wreaked havoc on houses of worship, in more ways than can be imagined.
In many cases, these factors coalesce, leaving houses of worship with properties that are underutilized, oversized, and too expensive to maintain. The ramifications of the de-churchification of America are not only a religious issue, but also a community issue and a Main Street vitality issue.
And there is no easy answer. Adaptive reuse is an established tool to give older buildings a new lease on life, however houses of worship often are difficult to repurpose due to their historic design and outdated infrastructure. The cost of materials and labor required to perform infrastructure upgrades are expensive. An abutting graveyard can make reuse or redevelopment even more challenging. A reversion clause in the deed may require that the real estate to be returned to the original granter of the property (or their heirs), even if the exchange occurred hundreds of years ago.
Not dissimilar to their secular counterparts, faith institutions can be challenging to engage. Understanding the leadership structure and decision-making processes varies between denominations, navigating the complex social structures between faith institutions, and gaining consensus among congregants can be very challenging
Municipalities present their own challenges. Restrictive, outdated, or uncoordinated zoning can make redeveloping a faith property to its highest and best use tricky. Land use and building codes regulating parking, utilities, sewer, stormwater, fire safety, signage, accessibility, curb cuts, and the like, can make even a well-zoned property nearly impossible to reuse or redevelop. Municipal finance departments can be overly eager to place a religious property on the tax rolls moments after closing chords of the final devotion.
Developers, always looking to maximize their return on investment, often “low-ball” a faith institution to gain control of their property. Sometimes developers are too willing to demolish an important structure to make a “cookie-cutter” development fit.
But, as the Ethel Waters hymn, “His Eye Is on the Sparrow,” asks: “Why should I feel discouraged?” because, throughout America and beyond, people are coming together to reuse and redevelop houses of worship that are emptying or empty. Sometimes the religious institution remains; sometimes it relocates; sometimes it closes. As Jim Cloar, former head of downtown organizations in Tulsa, Dallas, Tampa, and St. Louis, is known to preach, Downtown and Main Street organizations “don’t need to do everything; we just need to make sure everything gets done.”
Main Street organizations and other public-private partnerships can provide the focal point needed to fulfill the large number of roles required to reuse or redevelop a house of worship in a way that benefits the community.
So, what can a Main Street organization do? Here are seven potential actions:
- Know your houses of worship. Compile an inventory of the properties that contain a house of worship in your Main Street area. Develop relationships with clergy and lay leaders. Especially important are the key houses of worship in key locations, however this is defined for your community. It is equally important to begin to develop an understanding of the rules of various denominations, such as learning who makes real-estate decisions: is it the bishop (or like official), the local clergy, the lay leadership, or some combination.
- Create strategies on zoning, codes, and taxes that encourage, rather than prevent, houses of worship to become dense, mixed-use developments. Why is it that restrictive zoning, building, and tax codes can kibosh exactly the sort of mixed-use development that a community needs? A Main Street organization accustomed to dealing with municipal regulations can assist a faith institution to whom that world is foreign.
- Establish and demonstrate a willingness to assist small but growing houses of worship. This is especially important for those houses of worship serving immigrants. If an empty property is to be reused as another house of worship, the most likely user is a growing congregation from an immigrant community.
- Develop an access to capital resource library specific to meeting the adaptive reuse needs of a religious building and another community need. For example: Housing, especially affordable, low-income, or senior housing, often is the logical use for surplus property owned by a faith institution. A religious organization can fulfill its mission to serve the disadvantaged and elderly, while a municipality can take advantage of well-situated land offered at a below-market rate. But such a project often requires federal or state subsidies or foundation support.
- Offer to help enterprises that provide human-services with finding a new location. Food pantries, clothing closets, child-care centers, health clinics, and 12-step groups are often hosted by faith institutions. Partners for Sacred Places and the University of Pennsylvania have identified that the average subsidy for outreach programs in a house of worship, including the value of the space itself, was almost $150,000 per congregation every year. If a house of worship closes or goes to an alternate use, these human-service programs need to continue serving a community with as little interruption as possible.
- Work on each house of worship reuse project individually, but also keep the door open for holistic collaboration and coordination. Looking at one faith institution at a time may result in a good solution for one building, but not necessarily for an area as a whole. As difficult as it can be to get houses of worship to work together, such collaboration undoubtedly will be the best answer for a Main Street district. Can several houses of worship use one or two sanctuaries for worship, while devoting their once individually owned properties to housing, arts and culture, commercial, or retail?
- Serve as facilitators between and among houses of worship, the municipality, and developers. Houses of worship tend not to trust the profit motive exhibited by developers and realtors. Developers and realtors get frustrated negotiating with congregations that focus on the “good old days.” Municipalities consider not only city regulations, but also the opinions of the executive branch, the legislative branch, and neighborhood organizations. Main Street organizations can sometimes be the best translators between the spiritual language of a house of worship, the business language of a developer, and the bureaucratic language of a municipality.
Some advice: Main Street communities shouldn’t feel like they have to go it alone. Some national and regional not-for-profit, community-development organizations, as well as a couple of municipalities, have begun faith-based initiatives, as have a handful of faith institutions. Some experienced not-for-profit organizations and consultants with knowledge of both community development and the religious world also can assist local organizations through the complicated process.
Main Street organizations will have to mobilize to be up to this difficult challenge, and are perfectly poised to successfully rise to the occasion.
House of Worship Reuse and Redevelopment Resources
Rick Reinhard is Principal of Niagara Consulting Group, based in Rockville, Maryland. He led Downtown organizations in Richmond, VA; Buffalo, NY; Atlanta, GA; Northern Ireland, and Washington, DC, before managing real-estate reuse and redevelopment projects for the United Methodist Church and as a consultant. He may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org