The business of selling off old churches
Every year, about 7,000 churches in the United States close their doors, the Christian ministers' organization Pastoral Care estimates. In some cases, members' numbers have declined, and those who remain cannot support the considerable cost of maintaining the buildings.
Many are architectural gems in residential neighborhoods built 100 years ago, when money bought far more stone and stained glass than it does today.
Some church structures are being acquired by growing denominations, or congregations established by new immigrant groups. But more than a few are allowed to decay, or are being razed and the land put to secular uses.
"We want to save these structures," said John Duffy Sr., of Duffy Real Estate in Philadelphia. One of the hardest things he does, he says, is meet with congregations who need to sell.
"My heart goes out to them," he said.
One church, for example, got nine offers for its property, said Duffy, who was the listing agent. A developer bought the structure, then sold it to another denomination.
Another one Duffy listed will see new life as a Jewish high school for boys, he said.
Elsewhere, developer Ken Weinstein is turning an Episcopal church into a new home for the Waldorf School. He also is converting a different church into a performing-arts center.
"There are a lot of churches on the market or about to go on the market," Weinstein said.
Developers see great value in saving liturgical buildings and adapting them to other uses. And some communities have stepped up to help make that easier. For example, one such town with nine closed churches, adopted a conversion ordinance two years ago.
Another, which has just three churches left of the five it had 30 years ago, also acted to make adaptive reuse easier, Duffy said.
Developer Scott Brehman, of Main Line reBuild, is adapting Narberth United Methodist Church, built in 1929, to residential use as Narberth Place, carving out condominiums for the downsizing-buyer market.
"A demolition guy stopped by the church unsolicited and handed me a proposal to raze and remove the building," Brehman recalled. The cost: $250,000.
Five of six bidders on the property would have razed the church and replaced it with townhouses.
Brehman chose another way. The first phase of his project — transforming the 7,500-square-foot former parsonage next to the church into three condos and constructing a "like-minded" building on the site with three more units — is sold out. In Phase Two, the 27,000-square-foot church, built in 1929, will be made over into six additional condos; work is scheduled to begin in the fall.
Prices for the 12 condos will range from $495,000 to $1.1 million, Brehman said.
He also is starting the public-approval process for development of a 1923-vintage Baptist church.
Location is key
The church, at 10,000 square feet, is smaller than Narberth United Methodist "but had all the things we look for," he said, including an easy to walk to the business district. There will be four "elevator-capable" condo units, with the possibility of downstairs master bedrooms. The parsonage will be a single unit, he added.
"Churches are closing down at a really rapid rate," said Brehman, "and we need to do something about it."
He cited data from a 2012 symposium sponsored by the Lower Merion Conservancy that said 20 percent of the 1,000 churches in the city of Philadelphia were likely to close in 10 years.
"Many [churches] were built between 1880 and 1930 — overbuilt," he said, especially those on the Main Line. "These are big stone behemoths, and the cost of demolishing them is crazy."
Longtime parishioners are saddened at seeing the churches turned into housing, he acknowledged, but these buildings often are neighborhood icons.
Philadelphia developer Alon Barzilay, who is converting Greater St. Matthew's Baptist in the city's Graduate Hospital neighborhood as Sanctuary Lofts apartments, sees adaptive reuse of religious buildings as a niche business.
"It took a long time to figure out how to save it, but we were able to make all the apartments unique, with those who live on the top floor able to see the architectural features out of view of a century and more of worshipers," Barzilay said of the 38 units, which target the universities across the Schuylkill.
Construction from the ground up is probably cheaper, Brehman said, "but saving these buildings is more palatable to the community."
Market is changing
With reBuild partners Tom Harvey and Mac Brand, he has years of experience doing $1 million "Main Line flips."
In 2011, Harvey and Brehman joined Brand, noting "the trend away from gargantuan houses on the Main Line," and did the Villas at Redleaf in Wynnewood — 30-year-old refurbished condos in a former mansion.
"Because of Redleaf, we saw the growing market of downsizing boomers for high-end condos," Brehman said.
One thing that worked well in the Narberth project, he said, was excavating a stairwell on the side of the church to obtain access to the lowest level, so the required parking could go under the condo units.
The First Baptist site offers a similar opportunity for below-unit parking, he said.
Two years ago, developer Andy Thomas didn't have it that easy.
When he turned a long-closed church and its rectory into a single-family home, townhouses and rental apartments, Thomas said, he had to dig the footings for the required underground parking by hand, which caused significant delays. His buyers were paying in the upper $500,000s, adding $100,000 in upgrades to the base price, Thomas said.
Sale and eventual reuse of religious properties does not necessarily mean all congregations have to vacate. At another site, for instance, Weinstein will build 20 condos but lease the sanctuary back to the church members.
Brokering sales of spiritual institutions is very different from the rest of his business, Duffy said:
"I tell people I have the greatest client ever — God."