Why some big city churches are turning into condo developments

Posted April 19

Church buildings are being put on the real estate market across America as faith communities facing steep upkeep expenses are forced to cash in on offers from potential buyers.

"The same qualities that once made churches cultural and artistic centers — their central locations in neighborhoods, their size, their vast windows and cavernous chambers — also make them perfect for a real estate market that commodifies light and space in a crowded city," Curbed reported this week. The article focused on houses of worship in New York City that are being sold to condo developers.

Experts have been tracking this trend for the past few years, highlighting how dwindling attendance and an aging membership has pressured churches to move to smaller buildings or close down for good.

"A record of 1,502 sales of religious-affiliated properties valued at $1.3 billion were sold in 2014. This is nearly twice the 889 sales made in 2010 valued at $578.9 million," The Christian Post reported in September.

Moving to less expensive buildings or even to outdoor locations, such as the beach, can cause an identity crisis for a faith community, as the USC Center for Religion and Civic Culture reported last year. Many people are used to worshipping in spaces with ornate altars and stained-glass windows, and these design elements can feel as much a part of religious practice as the people in the pews.

"What makes a church, a church? Is it the buildings? The programs? The members?" the article asked.

Churches that trade their old sacred space for a new one need to be prepared for worship services to take on a new ambience, Deseret News National explained in October.

"In many churches, the environment will produce atmospheric conditions that propel you, invite you and nudge you into an alternative mental state," said Julio Bermudez, director of the cultural studies and sacred space graduate program at Catholic University of America, in the article. In nontraditional sacred spaces, "you have to work a little harder to get that contemplative atmosphere."

Although the upward swing in church building sales troubles many faith leaders, real-estate researchers recently offered good news. Some faith communities are selling old churches to build new ones, and religious construction is expected to increase in 2016, The Wall Street Journal reported last year.

"In dollar terms, spending on religious construction fell 9.1 percent in 2014 from the prior year, according to Commerce Department data. But through the first eight months of 2015, religious spending rose 2.3 percent compared with the same period in 2014," the article noted.

Email: Twitter: @kelsey_dallas


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