Sunday, March 3, 2013

True Urban Mixed Use.

I have not decided yet whether this emerging trend from the DC area is merely interesting or somewhat disturbing. Churches in that region have had to come to grips with their financial situations and some of the more cash-strapped are looking to become mixed-use developments in order to remain in existence.

The First Baptist Church of Silver Spring, Md. is asking to replace their current facility with apartments, shopping and a new church building. To be truthful, it is in a neighborhood which has a good transit presence, great walkability, a proposed Metro line stop and is transitioning toward higher density. What the area does not need is a wide expanse of parking and the setbacks off of the streets which presently exist.

Whether due to declining attendance or growing ambitions, other area churches are pursuing similar tactics. A church in downtown DC has been given permission to demolish their old Brutalist style building to erect an office building and church. In Arlington, Va., a church sold the air rights so as to construct several floor of apartments above.

This scenario brings to mind the recent removal of the Faith Covenant (formerly the Woodland Ave Baptist and originally the Immanuel Baptist) Church building for the High Point Condominiums. Though built on a much smaller scale the idea is much the same. The small church, which was losing its congregation and financially unable to adequately maintain the structure, opted to sell and re-establish elsewhere.

The theme which ties most of these instances together appears to be the involvement of the historic preservationists and their claims that these building are “significant”, either historically or architecturally, and should be saved. I guess that it could be argued that ecclesiastical buildings may be “community” or civic properties in a visual sense and therefore merit saving. I tend to weigh the value of what may replace the existing, visually and not economically, for my opinions.

What makes this interesting is that it is happening in quite a few localities, many of which are rapidly intensifying in density or transitioning to more urban uses. This intensifying is something which the Planning staff has urged for many years, through several comprehensive plans and when combined with the reluctance to expand the Urban Service Area mean that we could be facing similar issues.

We have some history of removing a few of our older churches over the years. The University took the Porter Memorial location on S Limestone and Baptist Healthcare (Central Baptist Hospital) took both the Centenary Methodist and the Central Baptist structures for more intense uses. Still others remain on highly traveled arteries at the edges of neighborhoods where “real mixed use” could be used as a catalyst for a transformational moment.

Given the general feeling toward downtown preservation, I think that our oldest church facilities will not consider such options at this time but there are a few which could see economic sense in such an endeavor. That is where the disturbing aspect of this trend may emerge.

I do not pretend to understand the congregational or financial health of our inner ring churches, but I do see when they add property (usually for parking). There is always the possibility of being land rich and congregant poor which can only be exacerbated during times of economic downturn. In times when folks cannot travel to services it may be advantageous build something where they don't have to drive.

A true mixed use.

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