On the market in Stamford: Your own piece of holy land
STAMFORD — The hottest land in the city is holy, and if trends persist, it will stay that way.
This fall, more than 60 half-million-dollar homes plotted on land long owned by a Strawberry Hill Avenue synagogue went on pre-sale, an apartment complex built on a church parking lot was the largest residential sale of the year, and work will soon start on converting another divine property downtown to rentals in yet another high-rise.
Meanwhile, three additional churches in the city are listed for sale, including one on Pacific Street in the South End, the First Congregational Church on Walton Place, and the Bethany Church in North Stamford.
The “for sale” signs and parking lot sell-offs are part of a larger, state and nationwide story. A quick search on LoopNet, a real-estate market place, shows two-dozen Connecticut churches on the market.
All this comes at a time when religious service attendance is down, and will likely continue to decline, according to think-tanks and pollsters. Newer generations are more attracted than ever to be a “none” when asked their religious affiliation, according to the Pew Research Center.
One-fifth of the U.S. public — and a third of adults under 30 — are religiously unaffiliated, according to 2012 polling by the center. Church and synagogue membership figures are also down with only 54 percent of respondents last year saying they are a member of such an institution, according to Gallup. Seventy-percent said they were members in 1992.
In Stamford, a city with high land prices, bullish developers and an influx of those commonly unaffiliated younger residents, those statistics lead church-goers and officials to soul searching and — uneasily — into the realm of real estate.
Matt Ferguson, senior warden of Saint Andrew’s Vestry, has seen firsthand the promise and perils of such deals.
Saint Andrews on Washington Boulevard is a beautiful brick-and-stone church built in 1860. It also has a membership hovering around 60 and was under threat of closure until the Episcopal Diocese recently backed off. Tax records show its land alone is worth $4 million.
The church is not for sale, but the only reason it survived to 2018 was a sale that started the trend a decade ago. It offloaded its derelict rectory to a developer who built The Blvd, a nearly 100-unit luxury apartment complex. The sale was heralded as a saving grace; it kept the church alive for eight years.
As if on schedule, “the runway ran out” this spring and the state diocese made plans to terminate the parish because of recurring deficits and debt from court fights over the demolition of the rectory, Ferguson said. Preservationists sued St. Andrew’s to keep the 136-year-old rectory downtown.
Ferguson, candidly, said he sees the writing on the wall.
If you consider religious institutions companies in “the business of ministering to people,” he said, you have to ask whether being tethered to a location is necessary. In the age of Netflix, people aren’t going to the movies like they once did. Do you need an old church with near-constant expensive renovations to minister?
“We have grandparents, but we don’t have children and the grandchildren involved in church life,” he said.
Hoping to get young people in the door, the church recently embarked on expanded offerings, including YogaMass services. But there, too, it’s hard to drub up money — younger generations often assume things are free and don’t feel compelled to donate.
Ferguson now wonders whether the church could have made more money if it held on to the rectory for longer.
“We got caught in the financial crisis, but by the grace of God, we were able to carry on,” he said. “We went to the grocery store starving — we needed that deal.”
No two church deals are the same.
The sale of 3 acres of First Presbyterian’s parking lot in 2014 wasn’t made in a time of financial distress. The 183 apartments built there, Element One, sold last month to another company for $78 million.
Presbyterian’s pastor, the Rev. David Van Dyke, said the sale “has been a success,” allowing the church to make major renovations and even start an endowment.
But it was “a very existential process,” he said. “It’s hard to contemplate giving up property.”
The congregation is now about 450 members strong. When the church was built, it was erected by a congregation of more than 1,800 members in 1957.
Unlike the other deals, an agreement between The Basilica of St. John and developer True North, was a ground lease, meaning the downtown church will get the land back in a century, the church’s attorney John Leydon said.
Leydon said the church hoped to lease the land for decades, and a deal was in the works before the Great Recession struck it down. It didn’t help that it was an odd lot, surrounded on all sides by buildings.
“It was the equivalent of trying to sell ice in Alaska,” he said.
But amid this decade’s boom, it happened.
“Generally, Catholic churches will avoid selling property if they can,” Leydon said. “The beauty for us is that in 100 or 150 years that some other bright people would find a new use for the property.”
Randy Salvatore, the developer who built The Blvd and is now completing 62 single-family homes on what was ballfields and the Hebrew school for Agudath Sholom, said the temple deal was similar to the First Presbyterian agreement. It was excess land.
Still, converging trends of lower religious-service attendance and the urbanization of Stamford with high-density apartments portend more church deals to come.
Churches, like the developers who overbuilt commercial offices in the city, over-extended in the good times and the bad times are upon us.
“They created all this extra supply and the demand isn’t there,” he said. “They need to consolidate.”
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