Architecture & Design, Construction, and Real Estate

Old churches provide alternative for developers

Location is often ideal as industrial buildings inventory continues to shrink.

April 12, 2019
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200 Madison
The former church at 200 Madison Ave. SE in Grand Rapids will be redeveloped into an affordable housing complex with 22 apartments. Photo by Ehren Wynder

(As seen on WZZM TV 13) As Grand Rapids’ old industrial buildings are turning into mixed-use developments, housing developers are running out of inventory. But vacant houses of worship are proving to be an attractive alternative.

Grand Rapids City Planning Commission chair Kyle Van Strien said he has noticed a large number of church redevelopments over the past eight years.

“I think it’s replacing one need with another need,” he said. “You see some dying congregations and big old buildings that are just sitting in vacant neighborhoods … it makes sense to use them for something we need in Grand Rapids.”

The location of a given church also adds to the attractiveness, as Van Strien said many urban congregations are located on the outskirts or right in the middle of a residential district. While old industrial buildings still are more attractive to developers, most of the industrial inventory in Grand Rapids already has been or is being flipped for mixed use.

“In all honesty, we don’t want to get rid of industrial,” Van Strien said. “We’re trying to save a sliver of those things.”

Most recently, the Business Journal reported on the proposed redevelopment of an old church building at 200 Madison Ave. SE in Grand Rapids. The developers, Brad Gruizinga, Nick Lovelace and Tom Ralston, plan to redevelop the former church into an affordable housing complex.

The developers are planning to construct 22 apartments with a mix of one- and two-bedroom units. The structure is three stories and about 24,000 square feet. Apartments would be priced for households averaging 60% area median income.

“It’s a perfect neighborhood for that,” Van Strien said. “It’s right adjacent to downtown and near bus stops.”

Rasa Lofley, a developer working under 111 Halo LLC, also plans to redevelop the former Saint James Lutheran Church building at 445 Knapp St. NE into five three-story apartments, which feature loft bedrooms in the upper part of the sanctuary, as well as bedrooms in the basement area, according to an earlier Business Journal report.

While there is certainly a lot of church activity, this trend is not new. Rhonda Baker, board liaison for the Grand Rapids Historic Preservation Commission, said developers have been buying and flipping vacant churches across the country for several decades.

Echoing Van Strien’s observation, Baker said once industrial inventory gets tight, developers start paying more attention to old schools and church buildings.

Sometimes just the site on which a former church sits is attractive to developers. Scott Nurski, senior multifamily investment specialist at NAI Wisinski West Michigan, said cases arise where either a church building may be converted to multifamily use or the building gets demolished to make room for a new development.

In the case of Michigan Meadows, an 88-unit townhome project being built by Orion Construction the Business Journal covered in March 2018, the site at 2233 Michigan St. NE previously belonged to Wealthy Park Baptist Church until the building was demolished to make room for a townhome development.

Jason Wheeler, spokesperson for Orion, said the congregation expressed a desire to relocate about two years ago before Orion approached them about redeveloping to the site. To Orion, the property seemed like a natural fit for a townhome development.

The site's proximity to I-196 and downtown Grand Rapids also made it ideal for a townhome community, Wheeler said.

Orion Construction demolished the church building, which was declared “functionally obsolete,” to make room for the new development.

“It wasn’t that it was irreparable,” Wheeler said. “It was just outdated and inefficient because of its size. It didn’t feel like something you’d walk in and be inspired by.”

Nurski pointed to an apartment project in 2013, when Brookstone Capital transformed the Bethel Pentecostal Church at 834 Lake Drive SE into a 37-unit apartment building.

“The church relocated, and it was a way to get out of the cost of maintaining the building,” he said. “What was driving that deal was the cost of ownership.”

The renovation kept most of the original feel of the 90-year-old church. The developer kept the brick façade and columns and added a contemporary two-story addition to the building’s two stories.

Grand Rapids-based Metric Structures was another church developer that chose to keep the old building for the sake of the architecture. The developer announced in February it plans to redevelop the Centro de la Verdad church, at 739 Fourth St. NW.

Jacey Ehmann, owner of Metric Structures, previously told the Business Journal, “We chose that building because it’s a great location, and it has a very interesting historical structure. It’s not in a historic district, but it’s very architecturally appealing.”

The 6,700-square-foot building will be converted into 23 one- and two-bedroom apartments on the main and second floors, and there will be an 1,800-square-foot addition to the main building. Metric Structures also is designating 1,000 square feet on the ground floor for its own office use.

Nurski added there has been more church development activity within the past eight years as the economy continued to grow. While seeking out old church properties isn’t new, a tight market could be forcing developers to get more creative, he said.

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