Architectural drawing of a Cathedral surrounded by a city.

Mission or market? Churches are not always on the right side of the housing crisis.

Editor’s opinion: I believe Christianity needs to be ‘reborn’ in a form more palatable to the 21st century. I do not know what this would look like, but suspect it will be substantially different from what we see now, at least in its outward forms. At the moment, there are probably more Christians outside of the Church than in it.

By Sidney Coles, Capital Daily, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

The fiscal reality that churches are increasingly less viable solely as places of worship is repeating itself across the country.  Unable to count on tithes or bums in seats, churches have been either closing their doors or selling off and re-purposing their assets in a land and real estate market only too happy to receive them. And it’s paying big dividends.

Land and asset management or inventory sell-offs present churches in transition, such as Christ Church Cathedral (CCC) in Victoria, opportunities for profit and longevity. Some congregations are looking to real estate and asset transactions to bring in much-needed operational revenue, while others hope to offset the high costs of restoration in what are often heritage sites.  And while many congregations have committed to integrating social mission-oriented goals into those sales, Christ Church has not declared itself one of them.

As is true of many churches across an increasingly secular Canada, it’s clear that the church has been struggling financially for quite some time. In a Nov. 12 letter to her parishioners, Rev. Canon Jeannine B. Friesen writes,  “As you know, these are challenging financial times for the cathedral. This is a reality that has been unfolding for many years.”

“People aren’t going to church on Sundays anymore, they’re experiencing community in different ways,” said Kaeley Wiseman, the development consultant the diocese has hired to help with the project. “The Anglican community on the Island has been very proactive at looking at what that future might be.” 

That future means making good on the 1912 Christ Church Trust Act that first made it possible for its trustees “to sell, lease, mortgage, exchange or otherwise dispose of and to manage all lands and property held by the trustees” and “to apply the proceeds of any sales of trust property for any purpose of the Trust.”

One hundred plus years later and, including years of consultation with the City of Victoria, the church announced it is bringing its multi-phased Building For the Future Plan another step closer to fruition. If approved, the re-zoning and development plan will mean a new look and landscape for the city’s cathedral Precinct, a 1.4-hectare parcel that runs along Quadra and Burdett avenues, with additional buildings on Vancouver Street and Rockland Ave.

After re-zoning, the Precinct land will be valued at a new rate, giving the diocese increased borrowing power and the ability to negotiate with its higher market value during development negotiations and partnerships.

A number of potential housing tower development options were made public, at the time of the announcement and appear in architectural firm Faulknerbrown’s project plan. Each option would generate housing units  in an order of magnitude, and depending on the winning option, those numbers will fall somewhere between 300 to 500.

The Christ Church Cathedral Master Plan states that revenue from new development will offset a $50M estimated cost  for seismic and heritage restoration work  the cathedral requires.

When Capital Daily asked if the Anglican Diocese had stipulated there be designated “social” or subsidized housing apportioned in its development plan, Brendon Nielson,  executive director of the Anglican Diocese of British Columbia, said,  “At this point, we are just asking for the land-use change. The cost of the seismic upgrades and lack of funding available for that does point in the direction of market housing.”

During an affordable housing crisis in one of Canada’s most expensive cities the answer might not thrill  affordable housing advocates. Essentially, the church is pitting heritage upgrades and retention against the  privilege of making a profit on up-zoning on the land. The decision to allow it to do so hinges on the city, which housing advocates say should be asking for affordable housing in return.

Meeting OCP housing targets is not the same as meeting affordable housing targets and the only way to achieve more affordable housing is to build it.

Or, in a city with a rapidly aging demographic, the diocese might have considered a similar project to the one the Very Rev. Douglas Stoute  has brought to life in transforming its assets into St Hilda’s Seniors Community, a not-for-profit housing complex near Eglinton Ave. West and Dufferin Street in Toronto. The property includes three large residential towers and St. Hilda’s Anglican Church. When the project is complete, the complex will make 500 modern apartments, capped at 80% of market value available to seniors.

In an interview with Capital Daily, Wiseman offered an alternative municipal benefits calculus, wherein she argued, that since the Anglican Church was “gifted the land” getting re-zoning approval for the development plan presents a chance for the diocese to give back to the city.

On the unceded territories of the Songhees and Esquimalt Nations, to use the word “gifted” is neither historically accurate or reconciliatory. And while the master plan does say that “in parallel to the City of Victoria re-zoning process, the diocese is committed to working with Esquimalt and Songhees Nations as this project proceeds,” it does not indicate what form that consultation has taken to date.  

Ultimately, her transactional argument is that the re-zoning application rests on trading the cathedral Precinct’s value as a heritage landmark—the only cathedral in town—and the future “amenity opportunities” it will offer back to the city—free rehearsal space for the Victoria Symphony. She doesn’t mention the profit the diocese will make on the venture.

When asked if the church itself might ever be converted into condos, she is adamant that no, as a heritage asset, it will remain the “city’s church in perpetuity.” And that’s part of the sellback to the city.

The CCC-proposed project’s zoning FSR request is 2.5, a density allowance more typical of a commercial zone in Victoria than a residential one. And to get it, the city could be demanding affordable housing in return. There are still opportunities for residents to provide feedback on the proposed project but ulitmately, the decision will rest with the city.

The Fairfield-Gonzales volunteer Community Association Land Use Committee will review the diocese’s re-zoning proposal and hear from the public on Nov. 27.

Top image credit: Rendering of the Cathedral Precinct Photo: Faulknerbrowns Architects

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