With little room left to build in suburban communities, church property has added appeal, sometimes to the dismay of neighbors.
Pastor Ben Swanson's job at Edina Covenant Church has its annual rituals: Christmas and Easter; the church carnival, held on the same day as Edina's July 4th parade, and the phone call from someone who wants to buy the church site.
Sometimes would-be buyers call more than once a year. The church is just west of the popular 50th and France intersection. This year Covenant was offered a six-figure payment for a piece of its lot and a land swap that would have preserved most of its parking spaces. The deal collapsed when city officials made it clear they wouldn't approve the development.
Swanson said the church is in no hurry to sell. Covenant is "a community of people that happens to be situated on a very valuable piece of land," he said. "But the value is not so much in the money as in the central location."
Developers will continue to rap on Covenant's door, as they have at churches around the Twin Cities. In mature suburbs such as Edina and Bloomington, churches built on large lots have become targets for developers who covet open space.
At least four Bloomington churches have sold land for single-family home, townhouse and senior citizen developments in the past 15 years. Last year Edina's Colonial Church sold part of its property to a developer for an assisted-living facility. Covenant's property would have been used for single-family homes.
The interest in church land doesn't surprise Glen Markegard, Bloomington's acting planning and economic development manager. Churches often were built on big plots when land was cheap, he said. As suburbia closed in, churches found they didn't need so much land or needed money for other priorities.
Often church land has been sold for senior citizen developments, which churches see as compatible with their mission, Markegard said. But it's not always an easy transition.
"Often it's controversial ... because the neighbors are used to open vistas or land that's like a park," he said.
Edina City Council members were peppered with hundreds of e-mails and hot testimony about the Colonial Church development, which eventually was approved.
A case study in Bloomington
At Bloomington's Southtown Baptist Church, which sold about half of its 10-acre lot to United Properties for a senior citizen cooperative, neighbors made lawn signs and packed City Hall in protest.
Prior to the sale in 2008, Southtown Baptist was a worn 1957 building that Pastor Stan McFall describes as "ugly as the face of a buzzard that's been on a gut wagon for 10 days." The lot took eight hours to mow.
"Functionally [the building] just wasn't working for us, but we lived with it," McFall said.
The church worked with a consultant to evaluate its options and chose to sell half of its lot. United Properties' proposal for a senior co-op was chosen from three bids.
The firm paid $1.7 million for the land and built the 101-unit Applewood Pointe Bloomington-Southtown. Brian Carey, United Properties senior vice president of development, said his firm has talked with other churches but this is the only one where redevelopment has been completed.
A win for everyone
Carey said it was a win for everyone: The church got the money it needed, the city added taxable property and United got an open building site in a good market for its product.
"Bloomington is a completely built-out community," he said. "There just aren't empty five-acre sites around."
The church put the money toward a $3.2 million remodeling, with a bigger sanctuary, new kitchen and offices, and a community room where for the first time gatherings can be held in accessible space.
The Applewood Pointe building was shifted nearer to the church to meet homeowners' desire for more distance from the three- and four-story building. While that makes the church invisible from Penn Avenue -- something the church did not want -- McFall said he and the congregation are "over the moon" with the new church.
Although church membership has taken "a bump" to about 220 people rather than the jump he'd hoped for, he said the renovation allows the church to "do ministry on a scale that we've never been able to do before."
In Deephaven, the Church of St. Therese holds the city's last significant tract of undeveloped land. Built in 1946, the church sits on 26 wooded acres, half of them occupied by church, school and parking lot. The church has talked about building there since the 1980s, considering housing and even a cemetery. Recently it asked for proposals, especially with senior housing.
Several developers have responded, said Ed Smith, the church's finance director. The church council will decide what to do this fall.
A financial alternative
Smith said earnings from development would help with the growing costs of running a K-8 school and protect the church in a time nationally when fewer people attend church and give less than previously. Smith said St. Therese, with 1,500 families, can't keep asking parishioners for more money.
"Churches simply can't sell more widgets to get more money in hard economic times," Smith said. "Our budgets are reliant on everyone's family budgets. ... We're looking at all possibilities to monetize it in a way that aligns with our mission and benefits all parish ministries."
The church wants to lease the developed land, which "would allow us a say in what happens," Smith said. Parishioners are interested in senior housing so they could stay near a community they love.
He said he knows development will raise hackles in the neighborhood.
"Our grounds are beautiful," Smith said. "The neighbors will be concerned about that, and so will parishioners. "What we'll discuss in conversations with parishioners is the need to sustain our ministry."
Mary Jane Smetanka • 612-673-7380