The first chapter in the story of Riverside Presbyterian Church in Sterling has quietly closed, with the sale of five acres of prime real estate in Cascades to a developer.
Developer William A. Hazel had donated the land at Cascades Parkway and Middlefield Drive in the late 1980s for the construction of Riverside Presbyterian Church. But concerns about parking and the cost of building the facility, along with the gradual formation of the new church’s mission, ultimately persuaded church leaders to sell the property.
The sale of the land, which closed in March, was the culmination of about a decade of planning, land use applications and negotiations, said Riverside’s co-pastor, the Rev. Brian Clark. M/I Homes, which paid $3.6 million for the land, plans to build 39 townhouses on the site, according to Loudoun County planning documents.
Clark has been pastor at Riverside since its inception in 1997, when the church began having worship services at Potowmack Elementary School. Limitations on parking at the planned building site first surfaced as a concern in the late 1990s, Clark said, when the church hired an architect to do a site plan.
“We realized that we were limited to about 180 parking spaces, and that we weren’t going to be able to park everybody,” he said. “That made us take a long pause.”
The parking shortage was compounded by changes in development plans near the church, Clark said. At first, plans called for retail and commercial businesses nearby, with parking spaces that could have been used for overflow church parking on weekends. Instead, townhouses and apartments were built, and the potential street parking also disappeared, he said.
The reality of building a church facility in the 21st century also factored heavily in the decision to sell the land, Clark said.
“The economics over the last 40 years of building [churches] have just radically changed,” he said. “At one time, if you had 150 to 200 people, you could afford to build a building, [hire] a pastor and do ministry.” He said it now takes about 600 church members to do all those things, and that Riverside has about 300 to 350 active participants in a given week.
Mindful of Hazel’s wishes for the property, church leaders explored the possibility of selling the land to another church.
“We found that the churches that could afford it came to the same conclusion we did,” Clark said. “And those that could [fit] there couldn’t afford to develop it.”
Shannon Kiser, who is on the ministerial staff at Riverside and is also East Coast director for the Presbyterian Center for New Church Innovation, said, “We are in a paradigm shift. Today, there just aren’t the resources that there once were in the mainline denominations, and so most of these entities are not moving toward land and building.”
Kiser added that new generations, including many people who are unchurched or “de-churched,” are not seeking what looks like institutional church.
“Now we’re moving much more in a missional direction, where you’re engaging in life with people,” she said. “And building and land sucks up resources.”
The development of Riverside’s mission over the years since its inception was one of the factors that led Riverside’s leaders to focus more on ministry to the community than investing in a building, Clark said.
About nine years ago, he said, church members became aware that the demographics of neighborhoods near the church were changing. Most notably, about 14 percent of the population was Hispanic.
“That’s a significant part of the community,” he said. In discerning how to better serve that population, Riverside eventually decided to add a co-pastor, the Rev. Edwin Andrade, who leads worship services in Spanish. Clark conducts services in English.
In 2012, after years of having worship services in schools — Potowmack Elementary and later Potomac Falls High School — Riverside moved to an office building on Ridgetop Circle in Sterling, where weekend parking is virtually unlimited.
The church now has its own space to serve the community all week long, Clark said, such as providing space for 12-step organizations and scouting groups to meet. Riverside has also partnered with Sugarland Elementary to help students from low-income families, and with Trinity Presbyterian Church of Herndon on a ministry for immigrant day laborers, he said.
Clark said that Riverside plans to move again and that leaders intend to use the proceeds of the land sale to acquire an office building that will provide more space.
“We don’t believe in a big mortgage for a church,” he said. “We don’t believe in putting the ministry and the work at risk for a facility. . . . So we’re looking for something that, if we outgrow it, we can sell it again. So [Hazel’s] gift kind of keeps rolling through the years.”
That will fulfill the vision Hazel had when he donated the land for the church, he said, adding that Hazel, who died in 2012, had approved of Riverside’s plans to sell the land and look elsewhere for a facility better suited to its mission.
It was Hazel’s donation, Clark said, that prompted regional Presbyterian leaders to start Riverside in the first place.
“God used William Hazel’s gift to make this church happen,” he said. “It would not be here without that.”
Jim Barnes is a freelance writer.