Sacred Moves Uptown

Exploring the special considerations it takes to build spiritual centers in the middle of the urban sprawl.

02/01/2016 By Timothy Eckersley

No matter how long cities have been around, they have a way of feeling new. The hustle and bustle, the changing storefronts, and the way nothing seems to hold still for long. But even in the newest of new urban landscapes, some of the oldest organizations—churches, temples, and other worship centers—find a home.

Rooting new churches into city spaces isn’t without its special considerations though, and no one knows that better
than Timothy Eckersley of Gertler & Wente Architects LLP ( He specializes in helping parishes find their place, and offers a few tips.

new churches in urban contexts
Congregations that want to build new churches in urban centers fall into two categories: those that already have property and those that do not.

The more common type is the former and these congregations can either be expanding or shrinking. The congregation needs first to decide whether to renovate their existing church, or to sell up and move to a new location.

A big factor in this decision is how parishioners get to church. In dense inner cities with good public transportation, parking is not required (and often actively discouraged). But in newer, car-based cities, parking becomes a critical factor in selecting a site.

Sometimes existing churches are outdated for their present needs or the congregation is shrinking, but the church is sitting on valuable land with unused zoning potential. In this case there may be an opportunity to develop a mixed-use building with an updated church on the same site.

There is nothing new about this—for example, Calvary Baptist Church on W 57th Street in Manhattan (a major thoroughfare) redeveloped its site in 1929 with a 16-story hotel constructed directly above a new church. A complication is that church buildings are rightly cherished by their local communities and are often landmarked in historic districts, which can produce a paradox in which a diminished congregation is responsible for a structure it can no longer afford but cannot alter.

The second category entails newly established congregations that have the resources to build a new church in the relatively expensive real estate markets of inner cities (unless this is done at the scale of a storefront church). Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan is an example. This church was able to purchase a 100-year-old parking garage in an established neighborhood that was not an attractive proposition for typical development. More typically, new congregations build churches on suburban sites that can attract from a wide catchment area of residential neighborhoods.

how new urban churches fit into cities
Many congregations that want to build a new church do not want to look like a traditional church. Part of their motivation for building is to attract people who might never consider “going to church.” They want their church to appear as an ordinary building that is welcoming and non-threatening, a place that makes itself easy to enter and take that first step.

The concept is to create a neutral “third space” that allows the community to gather beyond the “first space” of home and the “second space” of work. For example, at Redeemer Presbyterian Church a big inviting glazed entrance opens up the lobby directly to the street. At ChristChurch Presbyterian (above), a new site in Atlanta, a small-scale public open space at a busy corner acts as a welcoming gesture and mediates between the active street and quiet calm of the sanctuary. A coffee shop opens off the courtyard.

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