The line for the food bank stretched out for half a block in downtown Toronto. Scores of people stood patiently along the sandstone façade of Saint Luke’s United Church, all waiting for their chance to be served. Across the street stood half a dozen people who are planning to redevelop the church.
But even with the redevelopment, the food bank won’t be going anywhere, said Tim Blair, chief executive officer of Kindred Works, a real estate company associated with the United Church of Canada. “We are going to create an ecosystem in which this place is serving many people.”
Kindred Works has a goal to transform the church’s properties across Canada. This includes renewing church facilities and housing 34,000 people over the next 15 years in new rental apartments. One-third of these will be below-market rentals, with financing from Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation. KPMB Architects are the lead designers for all of these projects.
Kindred Works now has eight projects – which will include 600 homes – in the planning process: four in Toronto; one in Saint John; and one each in Ottawa, St. Catharines and Orillia, Ont. By the end of the year, Mr. Blair says, this will expand to 20 projects and 1,500 homes.
This is the most wide-reaching solution yet to a growing challenge of finding uses for old churches. Canada has about 28,000 churches, a large number of which are underused and in danger of closing. Many individual congregations have sold all or part of their facilities to fund repairs and operations. One non-profit, the Trinity Centres Foundation, has a goal of preserving and repurposing churches of all denominations.
But Kindred Works aims to do such work on a unprecedented scale. “We are trying to pioneer an approach to property development that creates social, economic and sustainability benefits for everyone,” Mr. Blair said. He started working with the United Church in 2020 after years in real estate banking and private equity.
Of their initial projects, Saint Luke's is the most complex. First built in 1887 as the Sherbourne Street Methodist Church, it represents the dominance of Protestant churches in Anglo-Canadian society of the time. Toronto architects Langley & Burke designed it in the Richardsonian Romanesque style, with a sanctuary that seats 800. Soon it was known as “the millionaires’ church,” and served Toronto’s most prestigious neighbourhood.
All that changed when the Methodist Church merged into the United Church in the 1920s. In the following generations, church attendance in general dropped dramatically. Today, Saint Luke's has a congregation of about 200. The sanctuary shows clear signs of physical decline. Years of roof leaks – recently repaired, Mr. Blair said – have eroded the plaster on the ceiling and walls, revealing the lath and masonry underneath.
“This is a big barn of a space,” architect Marianne McKenna of KPMB said as the church’s stained-glass windows refracted the afternoon sun into pale blues and pinks. “It’s too big for the current congregation. But we also think of it as a larger community space, one where the church can bring people in to do all sorts of events, one that can be part of the life of the city.”
KPMB’s solution, designed with the heritage specialists ERA Architects, rethinks the entire church complex. Their plan keeps the original 1887 building, and mostly demolishes a series of later additions. In their place, the architects imagine a 12-storey building that contains 100 homes, 20 of them with three bedrooms.
This would wrap two sides of the original church and also reach one arm above its roof. A new square would widen the sidewalk out front on Sherbourne Street, where food bank patrons line up. And a new café and rentable event space would provide income for the church and also bring more people into the building. “There’s an opportunity,” Ms. McKenna said, “for an integrated community that is more than the sum of its parts.”
The United Church also has many suburban properties, mostly congregations that were created in the years after the Second World War. One of these, Wexford Heights United in the former Toronto borough of Scarborough, is another Kindred Works project.
Here KPMB has designed an 11-storey apartment building with a gabled roof and two rows of townhouses, while planning to keep the oldest portion of the church building intact. “We’re taking different approaches to different sites,” said David Constable, a principal at KPMB. “And thinking about the entire portfolio allows us to explore different options for approaches to space, to materials, to pursue lower carbon in the building components.”
The approach of Kindred Works to real estate development, pursuing some degree of profit while serving the mandate of a charitable organization, is complex. Markee Developments, where former Toronto chief planner Jennifer Keesmaat is a partner, is one peer organization.
Mr. Blair suggested that having the United Church continue to own its facilities presents opportunities for economic integration and for a mix of activities that for-profit development cannot provide.
“We want this space to function for generations to come, to deliver the openness and the social impact it had in the past,” Mr. Blair said of Saint Luke's. “And we understand that Canada is facing an unprecedented housing crisis. We think we can be part of the solution.”
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