Separation of church and real estate

Top land prices have persuaded multiple Metro Vancouver churches to sell out or leverage development with joint venture partners
Cynthia Jagger of HQ Commercial: half-acre church site in Vancouver’s Main Street corridor expected to attract multiple offers from residential developers | Rob Kruyt

A small church in Vancouver’s Mount Pleasant neighbourhood is attracting a lot of visitors this April, but most will be drawn by something other than the Holy Spirit.

Like at least a score of other Vancouver churches, the Bethlehem Lutheran Church near Main Street and East 15th Avenue has been put up for sale. Submissions to purchase are being accepted. No formal price has been set for the property, which sits on about half an acre of land zoned with a potential 1.45 floor space ratio.

That would allow more than 41,000 square feet of real estate in one of Vancouver’s prime housing markets.

“Most of the interest so far has been from residential developers,” said Cynthia Jagger, a listing broker with HQ Commercial in Vancouver.

HQ’s call for submissions has attracted 90 distinct bids from developers, mostly local, and a handful from other church groups.

In most jurisdictions, church officials would typically give preference to a developer who would consider rebuilding a new church for the congregation.

But this is Vancouver. 

“[Bethlehem Lutheran] will also consider selling the property as is,” Jagger confirmed.

Citing a confidentiality agreement, Jagger would not estimate how much the 28,400-square-foot lot is worth, but according to a Colliers International Metro Vancouver LandShare Report in 2016, the values per buildable square foot in the Main Street corridor were in the $250 to $380 range.

A 15,000-square-foot site at Main Street and East 3rd Avenue sold a year ago for $17 million, but it had higher-density commercial zoning.

It is this level of lucre and leverage that has persuaded at least two dozen Vancouver churches, and at least that many across the rest of the Metro region, to sell property in the past two decades. Eleven church properties have been demolished since 2000, according to city data.

The trend has accelerated in recent years, due to both declining church attendance and rising real estate values.

For many churches, the attraction is not money, but rather a chance to use the equity for community good, and the continuation of the congregation in a smaller floor plan.

Such was the case with the Oakridge United Church in Vancouver.

Church member Valerie Weinert remembers having to sit in the basement with her parents whenever they were late for major services because the upstairs was packed.

There isn’t that kind of attendance today. There are now 60 regular churchgoers, most over 50 years of age.

That’s why the United Church has decided to redevelop the site in partnership with a developer. Fifty-eight condos will be built, and the congregation will meet in a smaller space in the building.

Oakridge Lutheran a block away is also partnering with a developer to downsize and bring in housing units. There, Catalyst Community Developments Society worked with the church on a plan to build six levels of mixed-use real estate, with retail space at street level. The second level will be the church’s sanctuary and multi-purpose community space. Atop this would be four more storeys accommodating 46 condominium units, directly across from the Oakridge shopping centre.

Downtown’s Coastal Church made a deal with developers who put Vancouver’s tallest building – the 62-storey Shangri-La tower – on the property beside the church building. In exchange, they got a $4.4 million renovation.

“Real estate is real estate at the end of the day,” said Rav Rampuri.

He and his partner, Leonardo DiFrancesco, are the Holy Realtors. They’ve been selling religious properties together for 21 years, everything from churches to temples to mosques, and they’ve seen the Vancouver market heat up like never before.

A current listing, with a pending offer at $8.8 million, is the 41-year-old Korean United Church along Vancouver’s Kingsway corridor. They also have a Coquitlam church on a 71,000-square-foot lot listed at $4.7 million.

As soon as a reasonably priced church is on the market, it’s snapped up, said the two realtors, who together have sold 157 churches in the past two decades.

Some churches seeking new property don’t care if a building is from a different faith. A Buddhist monastery purchased the art deco Salvation Army Temple at Hastings and Gore. A mosque took over a Chinese Mennonite church near Commercial and Broadway. And if another religious group doesn’t snap up the property, a developer usually will.

“The value of the land outweighs the capacities of some [religious] groups to buy them,” Rampuri said. 

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