Wednesday, September 29, 2010

NEIGHBORHOOD TRENDS: More churches, temples on the market as congregations shrink

Increasingly, churches and temples end up on the market as their maintenance becomes unmanageable for shrinking congregations

Every so often, Wesley Martin turns the key to the double front doors, creaks them open, and takes a walk through the silent, empty church where he once worshipped.

So quaintly and quintessentially New England, with simple white clapboard and an angled roof, St. David’s Episcopal Church in Halifax has been closed for more than a year, the unavoidable end to years of ebbing attendance and mounting financial burdens.

Now, along with a number of other religious centers south of Boston, it waits for another purpose.

“It was something we hoped wouldn’t come,’’ said Martin, the church’s historian, who lives close by and periodically checks the building. “It was a sad decision. The name ‘St. David’s’ will always remain in my heart.’’

At several area religious buildings, “For Sale’’ signs have replaced letter boards advertising bingo, weekly Scripture readings, and upcoming bar mitzvahs. Roughly a half-dozen former churches, temples, and religious schools are on the market in towns south of Boston, including Halifax, Hanover, Stoughton, Milton, and Whitman.

All told, “there are substantially more church properties on the market than there were three years ago,’’ said Matt Messier of CNL Specialty Real Estate Services, which deals exclusively in sales of nonprofit property, and is listing Living Hope Foursquare Church in Hanover for $3.9 million.

All told, he described a roughly 30 to 40 percent increase in religious properties for sale in that time period; and a 10 percent bump in just the past year.

In many cases, it’s a conscious surrender to the continued assault of the recession — and a recognition that a rising tide of new members is unlikely.

“A larger percentage of churches are having difficulty maintaining the level of their congregation,’’ said Bob Gosselin, president of the Groton-based Gosselin Group, the broker for First Baptist Church of Whitman, now on the market for $325,000. Some congregations “have been reduced to such small numbers that they have to consider closure.’’

That’s the case for both St. David’s, whose roughly 20-family congregation voted to close the 35-year-old parish in April 2009, and First Baptist, which had 20 to 25 member families when it formally shuttered in June 2009. St. David’s parishioners have since scattered to area churches; First Baptist, meanwhile, still holds Bible study on Sundays and allows former members to come in to pray and reflect.

“Not everybody goes to church,’’ lamented Ed Winnett, the parish president at First Baptist. “It’s not on the calendar every week.’’

Temple Shalom in Milton, whose 22,000-square-foot building is available for an undisclosed sum, has similarly experienced a long-term “migration’’ of its members, according to Robert Rosofsky, chairman of its property sale committee.

After World War II, he said, there was a large Jewish movement out of cities; since then, it’s included less urban areas, such as Milton. So ultimately, Temple Shalom shrunk from a high of 400 to 600 active families to about 130. As a result, it can no longer sustain the temple’s upkeep.

“We just felt ‘Let’s do something new,’ ’’ Rosofsky said, noting that the 65-year-old congregation hopes to stay in the building through May 2011 before seeking another home.

“We’re an active congregation, and we’re planning to stay in Milton as an active congregation,’’ he said. “This is just a transition for us.’’

In other cases, though, it’s a transition in the other direction.

The South Area Solomon Schechter Day School in Norwood, for instance, is selling a building in Stoughton that it outgrew three years ago. The Jewish school moved to Norwood in 2007 after its enrollment ballooned and its “center’’ of families moved more toward that area, according to Jane Taubenfeld Cohen, head of school. Its former 26,373-square-foot building on Stoughton’s Turnpike Street — now leased to a nonprofit — is on the market for $1.8 million.

Meanwhile, a 12,491-square-foot temple on Robeson Street in Fall River is being advertised for $750,000; and brokers are looking to entice buyers for a 17,500-square-foot combined church and storage building on Geneva Avenue in Dorchester, listed at $1.85 million.

Despite their divine backing, religious buildings aren’t invulnerable to the forces at play in today’s cluttered real estate market.

First Baptist, for instance, has been on and off the market since early 2010; Foursquare has been listed for about six months; and St. David’s came on the market for $299,900 in the late spring.

In all these cases, there’s been interest from various entities, according to listing agents, but there are no solid offers yet.

Similarly, although they would be nonprofit deals, they don’t ascend past the overall credit crunch. These days, it’s more difficult for buyers to secure financing, Messier said — banks are more cautious, and often want more money down than in the past.

“There’s always interest in a church property,’’ he said. But “finding somebody who has the ability to buy is the challenge.’’

But when they are sold, what of the buildings left behind?

“Eighty percent of the time, a church is going to sell to another church,’’ said Messier, who is based in Orlando, Fla., and whose division has been involved in the transfer of roughly 1,500 religious buildings over the years.

As he and other brokers explained, the first step is almost always to seek out and gauge the interest of other religious groups.

“The highest and best uses for a church is for another congregation to take it over,’’ agreed Gosselin.

And if that doesn’t happen?

Messier has seen religious buildings reused as schools, or single-family, multi-family, or adult housing, or converted to office space; other times they’ve been torn down and replaced with retail or grocery stores.

Ultimately, it all depends on how it’s zoned and where it’s located, he and others agreed. That said, though, many religious buildings are zoned residential, which limits them for use only by another nonprofit, or for conversion into homes. However, zoning changes can always be sought at town meeting, brokers noted.

This is the route Temple Shalom took. After exploring merging with other synagogues (that didn’t work out), it asked Milton voters this spring to rezone its property from residential to commercial. But, Rosofsky explained, that failed to receive the two-thirds vote required.

First Baptist also tried the municipal route: It agreed to sell the church to Whitman for $425,000, but the deal was voted down at last fall’s Town Meeting. A sale to another potential buyer also fell through earlier this year, and the building went back on the market in August. When a sale finally goes through, proceeds will be returned to the denomination.

“We wanted it to go to the community,’’ Winnett said. Now, “we would like to see [a buyer] who is going to maintain the character of downtown Whitman.’’

But, considering the building is business-zoned, it could be converted to offices or retail, Gosselin noted. The same goes for Foursquare, a 31,546-square-foot building.

Inevitably, selling a church is “much different than leasing office space to an accounting firm,’’ said Messier, noting the various zoning considerations, as well as the number of people involved in the decision.

“It’s a very difficult decision to come to,’’ agreed Steve Pierce, coordinator for congregational support at the Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts, describing a process of “grieving’’ when a church is closed and sold. “It’s like a death in the family.’’

Also, there’s a ceremony to “de-consecrate’’ or “re-secularize’’ it, which involves prayers, Scripture readings, and a recounting of the history of the church.

In the end, Pierce said, “We do everything we can to try to ensure that the building stays a church.’’ He says he has been involved with “more than several’’ Episcopal church closings in the past several years.

Temple Shalom, for its part, isn’t being picky. “We don’t have any particular interest in which way the property goes,’’ Rosofsky said, noting that proceeds will go toward the purchase of another building, and into an endowment fund. “We’re looking for the best offer.’’

On the market since July, the property has gotten some interest from other houses of worship, he said. Beyond that, residential housing is a possibility; Rosofsky said apartments, a Chapter 40B project, or a maximum of 19 homes could fit there.

That’s a likely possibility for St. David’s, as well. Martin is skeptical that organized religious services would continue to be held within its halls.

Converting it will require substantial retrofitting, he noted. But, still, tucked among stands of pines in a pastoral area spotted with Georgian and Federalist buildings, it would be a wonderful place to live, he said — just as it was to worship.

“There’s beautiful scenery to look out at,’’ said Martin. “You can watch the pines sway.’’

Taryn Plumb Boston Globe September 19, 2010

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