Development Has Become New Savior for City Churches

By Paul Schwartzman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 31, 2007

The slate roof was deteriorating, the interior walls were crumbling, and the stone steps leading to the sanctuary were leaking. Running out of cash and down to their last 88 active members, congregants at Mount Vernon Place United Methodist Church were resigned to their spiritual home fading away.

Then they found a savior, one decidedly more secular than the one they're accustomed to celebrating: a developer willing to pay cash for property the church owned next door, a parcel in the newly gilded neighborhood around the Washington Convention Center.

The $26 million sale allowed the congregants to not only restore the 90-year-old church but also buy space in an adjoining building, part of which they plan to rent to a coffee bar. A steaming latte, the pastor hopes, might be just the ticket to draw young professionals into the church.

"We were nearing death," said the Rev. Donna Claycomb, Mount Vernon's pastor, seated in a construction trailer outside the church, her makeshift office during the project. "Now we're building and growing."

A generation ago, as waves of residents left the District, a flurry of Washington congregations began selling churches and moving to the suburbs. But a new pattern has emerged as the city has undergone a renaissance. Congregations still sell their earthly possessions, only now they're using the cash to renovate their existing churches and bolster ministries.

The deals have thrust pastors into a realm unplumbed at the seminary: high-stakes real estate, with its arcane zoning, massive construction projects and multimillion-dollar deals.

One downtown church has even envisioned a way to sell the air over its sanctuary and build a new home at the same address.

"If congregations are going to physically and fiscally stay in the city, they have to become as savvy as other property owners, or they'll be priced out like anyone else," said Terry Lynch, executive director of the Downtown Cluster of Congregations, a consortium of 43 churches and synagogues. "To meet the array of financial challenges is a huge drain on resources."

In recent years, at least eight Washington congregations and one religious organization have negotiated deals with developers that allowed religious groups to fortify their ties in such neighborhoods as Penn Quarter, Logan Circle and Glover Park.

The Catholic Archdiocese, for example, leased a portion of the block it owns along 10th Street NW to a developer who built an office building. The deal generated revenue that allowed the archdiocese to open a downtown office for Catholic Charities.

On Wisconsin Avenue, St. Luke's United Methodist Church made $6 million selling an adjoining parking lot to a developer, who built Georgetown Heights, a condo with apartments priced as high as $2 million. Before the sale, the church's Sunday attendance was down to two dozen worshipers. "It was sell the land or close the doors," said Shalom Mulkey, a church administrator.

In Penn Quarter, members of First Congregational Church spent years trying to divine ways to replace their antiquated sanctuary without moving from 10th and G streets NW. The answer, it turned out, was skyward. The church is close to selling its air rights to developer PN Hoffman, which is planning a 10-story office building; the first two floors will be occupied by First Congregational.

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