Skip to main content

A rendering of the planned condo tower designed by architect Bing Thom is seen here. Its 300 units will help finance other planned developments, including a daycare, below-market rental housing and a homeless shelter.

The idea of his church joining forces with a developer to build a 168-metre tower at the gateway to Vancouver's West End is a little frightening, the senior minister of First Baptist admits.

"Our fear is that our whole identity will change from that of ordinary people who love Jesus," Rev. Darrell Johnson says, sitting in his office warmed by golden light from the stained glass window near the busy intersection of Burrard and Nelson Streets.

But his church's leaders and congregation decided to go ahead with developing the five lots of land they have acquired since the 1960s along Nelson Street, always with the idea that it would be used some day to help the church serve its community better.

Mr. Johnson and others interviewed seven local developers, pondered and prayed, then selected Ian Gillespie at Westbank to undertake the project.

Mr. Gillespie, along with prominent architect Bing Thom, demonstrated to those leaders that they understood the church's goal, which is to use First Baptist as a place to support the city, the minister said.

Mr. Thom even quoted Jeremiah 29:7, Mr. Johnson said, which urges people to work for the prosperity of the city, "because if it prospers, you too will prosper."

So, if all goes according to the designs being submitted to the city's planning department, First Baptist will add a daycare, 75 units of below-market rental housing in a separate building to replace the 40 units in an older house and apartment building now on the site, a new shelter and kitchen for the homeless people the church has served for almost two decades, an expanded Sunday school, more meeting rooms for the growing congregation, a small concert hall and a public garden.

And, of course, the 300 market condo units in the towers behind the church will help finance all of that, as well as paying the $14-million bill for an earthquake upgrade on the 104-year-old Gothic Revival church.

First Baptist is far from the only parish in Vancouver looking at leveraging valuable property acquired in earlier years to help it keep functioning or to add community services.

"It's definitely going to be a big part of the business of churches moving into the future," said Randy Murray, a spokesman for the Anglican diocese of New Westminster. In that diocese, two churches are planning redevelopment ideas, Holy Trinity and another one not public yet.

The United Church also had a redevelopment on one of its sites recently, and projects at other denominations are scattered around the Lower Mainland. Some do it just to help refurbish their churches. Others use their land to create low-cost housing or other services.

The First Baptist development will be the first major Vancouver condo project for Bing Thom, famous in the region for his elegant buildings with curved or swooping lines. They include the Chan Centre at the University of British Columbia, the Central City tower and library in Surrey, Sunset Community Centre in south Vancouver and the Aberdeen Centre mall in Richmond.

Mr. Thom said it was clear the most important thing for First Baptist was to strengthen the sense of community.

So his design adds a public garden on the Burrard side of the church, where people can "have a quiet moment in the middle of the city" and an atrium between the church and the towers.

As well, even the condo tower will have a shared garden for each three floors of units, so that residents can have a common space to socialize with nearby neighbours.

Mr. Johnson said the church would have been hesitant to consider a tower on its land if it were not already surrounded by towers. But it is.

"This city is changing so fast and we're part of it now. We're trusting this will add to the city."

Your Globe

Build your personal news feed

Follow the author of this article:

Check Following for new articles

Interact with The Globe