Seeing the Glass as Half Full: Exploring the Reuse Opportunity for Houses of Worship on Main Street

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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a new lease on life, however, houses of worship often are difficult to repurpose due to their historic design and outdated infrastructure.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 difficulties. Restrictive, outdated, or uncoordinated zoning can make redeveloping a faith property to its highest and best use tricky.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?” 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.

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