A rendering by Hobin Architecture shows Southminster United Church in Old Ottawa South after its rear annex is replaced with a condo building and townhouses.
David Reevely, Ottawa Citizen
A zoning quirk could let an Old Ottawa South church shore up its finances by building a six-storey condominium overlooking the Rideau Canal.
Southminster United overlooks the canal just west of the Bank Street Bridge. If you’re skating toward Dow’s Lake on a winter afternoon, you can see its stained glass glowing in the sun.
The church and the stained glass are staying. But what’s going, conditional on city council’s approval, are a two-storey addition at the back and a side yard. They’ll be replaced with a small set of townhouses and a six-storey condo building wrapping around the northwest corner of the church, with million-dollar views of the canal. The developer is Windmill, the same company that has worked with the Anglican Church on building condos around Christ Church Cathedral at the west end of Sparks Street and is redeveloping the industrial islands in the Ottawa River north of LeBreton Flats.
To let this happen, though, city council will have to rezone the parcel from “institutional” use for the church to “traditional mainstreet” like most of Bank Street, which allows four-to-six-storey residential and commercial buildings. What’s tricky about this is that the main church is what actually faces Bank; the land to be redeveloped is at the far end of the property, well away from the main street.
Furthermore, just a few years ago the city approved a heritage-protection bylaw covering the houses that face the canal there — every single one of them between Bank Street and Bronson Avenue, except for the church, whose institutional zoning made it different, less susceptible to redevelopment. Till now.
The project is simply a financial necessity for the church, said Andrew Brewin, the chair of the congregation’s redevelopment committee.
“For more than 10 years now, we’ve been looking at ways of dealing with it. We’ve been in a position of being financially OK —” he hits the word hard, so it means they’re not really OK “— but worrying about the finances. It ends up pressing on everybody,” he said. “Declining numbers would probably be the major reason but the building itself is remarkably expensive.”
Among other things, the annex is brutal to heat. And spaces designed for preschool and daycare aren’t needed as much since the province launched full-day kindergarten.
The annex is about 60 years old, added to the main church 20 years after it opened in 1932. My sons are part of the Scouts troop that uses the church basement as its headquarters. While they’re in Beavers in the church proper, there’s an aikido class up in one room in the annex, yoga in another, a support group in a third. Two Alcoholics Anonymous meetings are in there afterward, one of them held in Russian.
That’s a snapshot of one hour on one evening a week. The church hosts readings and concerts and a soup kitchen, too. A Mennonite congregation meets there Sunday afternoons. Brewin said the committee did the math and figured that 70,000 people use the church for something each year, mostly for things other than Sunday services. A lot of the rentals are at below-market rates, he said, as an outreach and community-service gesture.
“We do our best to make sure that it’s a combination of what we need to keep the roof over people’s heads and providing something the community needs,” he said.
But the maintenance demands have crept up. The congregation’s ability to cover the costs has drifted down. They’ve spitballed a bunch of ideas, including offices for nonprofits and charities, affordable housing and bigger-picture ideas that would have involved merging with other churches. They nearly made a deal with the Ottawa Jazz Festival, though the finances didn’t quite work out and the congregation worried the church might be overwhelmed by a busy new neighbour.
“Simply, through a variety of things over a period of time, we recognized that we weren’t in the business of being developers,” Brewin said. Selling the property to a friendly buyer made more sense than trying to rebuild and manage it themselves. It’ll pay for overdue repairs to the main church and renovations to create more rooms in the remaining building that are tailored to modern uses.
“We think we’ll be able to maintain 80 per cent of the revenues simply by redesigning the space that we have,” Brewin said. The project is to start in 2018 at the soonest.
Not going bust is, of course, key for Southminster. Nobody’s entitled to the congregation’s permanent generosity. But the plans do illuminate just how dependent we are on the goodwill of churches for ordinary community spaces, and the folly of assuming they’ll be there to provide them forever.