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By Clair Enlow

May 24, 2006

Design Perspectives -- U District churches: Will the spirit move them?

Special to the Journal

Imagine a cluster of connected meeting rooms, intimate sanctuaries and restful open spaces where Lutherans, Baptists, Quakers and Catholics all circulate — gathering and going their separate ways as they are called.

Imagine this, combined with human services, counseling and student outreach for the University of Washington nearby.

Then, if you can, envision all this right alongside a neighborhood café and grocery — all arranged so that clients, shoppers and congregants can come and go without stepping on each other.

Image courtesy of Clint Pehrson Architects
This conceptual plan by Clint Pehrson Architects shows how an ecumenical center in the University District might work, with separate sanctuaries as well as shared spaces. At top left is the plan of University Temple First United Methodist. Neighborhood amenities include a small park and public through-block circulation.

Although they don't have a site yet, several hundred mainstream Protestant churchgoers in the University District have tentatively endorsed this vision of their future.

Rev. Jack Olive of University Temple First United Methodist Church called the ecumenical group a “consistent, progressive Christian voice” that crosses traditional boundaries.

“We are not theologically in lockstep,” said Olive. However, “We are clear about Jesus' mission to the poor.”

They've always been about addressing the world's problems. But now these churches are looking at their own houses. Membership has been flagging for more than a generation. And what they see, underneath the empty pews, is equity. They own large landmarks, virtually debt-free.

They are not unlike congregations in historic churches around the country. Members are aging, and many drive in from far-flung suburbs. In religious circles, their quiet messages have been drowned out by the evangelical tide. But their land has been rising in value, along with everything else in the city.

They're among the most socially and politically liberal within their denominations. But they differ from their sister churches in another way: they're talking about pooling resources and moving in together. They care about their historic homes and want them preserved, but can't pay the bills.

Photo by Clair Enlow
University Temple First United Methodist Church has no plans to move. But other local congregations might, creating an ecumenical center that would serve them all. The Temple block is a favored location, even though a master-use permit has been granted for a mixed-use project in the parking lot shown above.

“What we see across the land is churches making the mistake of letting their buildings dictate their future,” said Bryan Mangum, who heads a branch office of Service Realty in Tacoma. His parent company, a real estate brokerage that specializes in church property nationwide, is based in Texas.

Sharing a site is “a grand idea,” said Mangum. “It offers an incredible solution to so many of these churches.”

We're talking about 314,000 square feet of floor area in the University District, and real estate tentatively appraised at $40 million to $50 million.

Architect Clint Pehrson, himself a member of University Lutheran Church, has been assisting in their vision. He tells of big potlucks that have brought together Lutherans, Methodists, Episcopalians and even Catholics.

Two years ago, using architectural interns with notepads and tape measures, Pehrson's office began gathering data on everything from membership to broom closets, chairs and coffee makers. He published a report in early 2005 with a detailed picture of the buildings and how they are used — or under-used.

According to Pehrson, three of the churches in the study — University Christian, University Lutheran, University Baptist — are now considering the possibility of moving. The list of groups who might join them in an ecumenical center includes Covenant House, Third Church of Christ Scientist and University Friends Meeting House. Staying put, but included in the Pehrson study are Christ Episcopal, University Congregational and University Temple First United Methodist. Blessed Sacrament Catholic Church has also participated in talks with the group.

Backed by their equity and the analysis of their needs, the ecumenical group is shopping for a site.

Pehrson stresses the idea could work in a number of locations, but the Temple United Methodist block, between 15th and University avenues, across from the campus, is the top choice for an ecumenical center.

“There's a reason all these churches have ‘university' next to their name,” said Pehrson.

There are other reasons for their first pick. Although they are a part of the ecumenical group, University Temple United Methodist members do not want to leave their historic home.

Sound Transit's light rail station will be across the street. And the church's vital human services mission, Roots, is established in the church basement, providing emergency shelter and counseling for homeless youth.

The church also owns the adjoining property to the north, an add-on building dating from 1955 that houses offices and a chapel. Fronting the same street is the Post Office, ripe for redevelopment.

Members of the ecumenical group have engaged landowners along the University Avenue side of the block to talk about the idea. “All we can do is let them know exactly what we're up to… What we count on is the good will and (community) investments of second and third generation property owners,” said Pehrson. “We're operating on faith here.”

But nothing short of divine intervention is likely to make the full block vision a reality. The southern part of the half-block occupied by University Temple is a parking lot owned by the Wesley Foundation, a student outreach arm of the Methodist church. Wesley is an independent non-profit that agreed some time ago to a long-term lease of the lot to Unico Properties, a Seattle developer. Unico has obtained a master-use permit to build a six-story mixed-use building with offices, apartments and below-grade parking.

Unico maintains its project provides badly needed market-rate housing in the University District — despite neighborhood complaints that it is bulky, impinges on the historic church, precludes open space and threatens the homeless youth mission.

The project has also strained relations between the Wesley Foundation, which will locate in the building and get a guaranteed income out of the deal, and some members of the University Temple United Methodist Church.

Pehrson's conceptual plan for the ecumenical centers on the University Temple block covers the 480-foot by 240-foot block, including the Unico site. The height varies from one to five stories. It shows five new and separate sanctuary spaces that can be dedicated to individual denominations. But certain things are shared — from the central font and water feature to rooms for wedding preparations.

The plan includes a generous pocket park connected to a walkway through the block. There would be 21,000 square feet of retail in 13 storefronts, including the Café Allegro, and 30,000 square feet for an anchor tenant — possibly a grocery store.

Best of all for University Temple, the church would be renovated, with an atrium circulation space connected to the park on the University Avenue side and human services consolidated in the basement.

“We are very anxious to preserve this historic structure...,” said Olive, who is an archaeologist as well as a senior minister at University Temple United Methodist. Two historic United Methodist structures in the region are currently threatened with demolition, First United Methodist, the last historic church remaining in downtown Seattle, and its counterpart in Tacoma. Washington law exempts church structures from official protection through historic landmark status.

So, if University District churches sell their buildings, who will buy? Some say they would be used for civic and community uses.

But Mangum says they are worth more as churches. Some evangelical churches in the suburbs are looking to move closer to the university and may have their eyes on traditional architecture, too.

Best of all, said Mangum, they'll be understanding, letting the sellers stay until the ecumenical center is built.

After years of controversy and some concessions from the developer, the Unico project finally has clearance from the city. Sometimes the best ideas come late.

“It wouldn't take more than a couple (of churches) to come together to buy that property,” said Mangum.

“We're putting ourselves in the position of being able to respond as new opportunities arise,” said Rev. Tom Quigley, a member of University Christian Church now affiliated with Seattle University's School of Theology and Ministry. “We'll see where the spirit takes us.”

Clair Enlow can be reached by e-mail at clair@clairenlow.com.

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