Vancouver churches unlocking their land value
The following excerpt is from an article special to the Globe & Mail by Kerry Gold, published on January 9, 2015.
In the West End, near St. Paul’s Hospital at Thurlow and Pendrell, Rev. Jim Smith and his Presbyterian church chose to embark on a different business model. Instead of redeveloping their land for market condos, they chose to expand the church and build rental housing that would take the form of a 22-storey tower. Bosa Properties will own and manage 162 market-rate units, and the church will own and manage 45 units as a housing society, set at affordable rates and intended mostly for seniors.
Central Presbyterian Church took on the project not because its congregation was shrinking, but because it was growing.
“We were out of time and space,” Mr. Smith says.
The modest church had been rebuilt in 1976, but they’d outgrown the building. They shared with three congregations, as well as a daycare, food bank, Montessori school and other community groups. The church was heavily utilized from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m., seven days a week.
“We thought, ‘We’re sitting on some very valuable property and we could leverage that into something that would give us a bigger facility,’” he says.
They considered additions, but knew that once they went through seismic and building-code upgrades, they might as well rebuild. Now, they’re acting as developers who’ll generate a profit from the rentals. Rental housing would have been a bigger risk outside of urban Vancouver. But with the backing of the city and a huge demand, it made sense for the church and their project partners.
Architect Gregory Henriquez came up with the idea for the church to provide social housing with the money generated from the condo development.
“This is a really unique project where the value of the land is able to pay for a new church and 45 units of social housing, with no government subsidy whatsoever. It’s being paid for by market rental housing,” Mr. Henriquez says. “That’s unheard of in the history of Vancouver. This is a one-off; a really unique model, something that should be really celebrated. It’s a rare occurrence.”
The high-rise will emerge from the church, which will occupy the first three floors. It will give parishioners 11/2 times the space they have now. The three floors above the church will be for the affordable housing units, and they’ve already got a long waiting list for applicants.
It’s a win-win for church, developer and community, Mr. Smith says.
“We don’t put any money in. We’ll earn revenue from the housing society and commercial retail space,” he says. “It’s all mortgage free for us, so that’s how we can afford the housing subsidy.”
They were supposed to break ground on the project in the next month, but Mr. Smith still has to find a space to relocate the congregation. Once that happens, the project will proceed.
Bosa has worked with churches before, and has plans for two more church projects, including one in Victoria, says senior vice-president Daryl Simpson.
“Quite frankly, it’s like a three-legged stool,” he says. “We get to provide the religious institution with long-term financial stability, we provide much needed housing stock and we’re able to maintain that place of worship in that neighbourhood as opposed to leaving it. The other option would be to sell the site to a developer and find another place. But that would obviously be difficult.”
Selling the site off was never in the cards, Mr. Smith says. As he puts it:
“Our mantra is that we’ve been here 100 years and we plan to stay here 100 years.”