Mixed-use church campuses intentionally foster community

Can ‘New Urbanism’ planning principles and a mixed-use church campus get more people closer to God?

By Doug Spuler and Ken Anderson

There’s a trend towards people moving back to denser urban areas that provides an opportunity for the church to reclaim an anchor position in the heart of the community. The repatriation of downtown cores and the development of new transit-oriented urban centers is a trend that’s expected to continue for at least the next 15 years.

Buying excess land beyond what is required for your immediate facility need can result in a win-win-win situation. You need a new facility to meet your church’s growing needs.You need the community to create a vibrant church. The community needs many of the resources the church has to offer. Why not plan ahead and give your church the flexibility to address the needs of the future and an opportunity to integrate into the fabric of the community?

Among the advantages of buying excess land and doing a mixed-use development plan is the ability to leverage the land in the future, providing a legacy and investment for future generations of the church. A mixed-use campus provides an avenue for the church to integrate into the community in ways that weekend services just don’t accomplish on their own.

Create master-plan

Resale or leasing. In the simplest scenario, your church may be able to sell or lease the excess land at a possible profit in the near-term or future. By investing in an entitlement process, which is basically a rezoning effort where land development for a specific use is legally approved by the municipality or governing entity, your church may be able to sell or lease the land at an increased rate.

For instance, purchasing land that has a low zoning density and going through the entitlement process to rezone it to a higher density will often result in the land becoming more valuable and more attractive to potential buyers and developers. An entitlement effort typically requires the skill of a land planner and architect and can range in costs from $50,000 to several hundred-thousands of dollars and take anywhere from six months to two years to complete.

Land values can increase up to two or three times the original purchase price. Depending on the acreage of the land, this could be millions of dollars to the church.

Co-developing. Another opportunity lies in the potential to be an active participant in development of the plan. In Westminster, CO, the Westminster Church of the Nazarene is doing just that. An inner-ring suburb of Denver, Westminster is a growing area. The church was beyond capacity on its existing campus and saw an opportunity in developing a new 78-acre site into a mixed-use community with itself as its “anchor tenant.” A market analysis showed a strong demand for a mix of uses including housing, retail and commercial near the church’s new location.

The site offers a potential for an eventual 1.3 million square feet of development, of which the church will occupy about 300,000 square feet. Westminster Nazarene sees this as a magnet to draw upwards of 7,500 people plus through its campus every week. RNL is working with the church to create a phased master plan as well as architectural design for the first vertical developments within the plan. This first phase includes design for one of three planned primary worship venues, a 68,000-square-foot multi-purpose facility expected to complete construction in 2011.

Situated as the community’s feature building, the facility will be complemented by two future worship venues, an 1,800-seat contemporary performing arts-style sanctuary and a 350-seat chapel. Each of the three will have a very distinct style and scale and complement the remainder of the church campus including day care, youth, recreation, administration and Christian school buildings. These facilities will be open to the community at large and be a resource to the community.

Yet the church is wise in looking beyond its immediate critical needs and understanding they are only part of the picture. The church is pursuing teaming arrangements with independent developers to co-develop the rest of the site. The ultimate vision is a partnership of collaborative uses and users resulting in a spiritual “village” linked by open green parks and pedestrian friendly streets fostering a sense of unity.

Powerful architectural statement

RNL provided a massing analysis, which helps determine facility sizes, heights and forms of future buildings, creating a dynamic and powerful architectural statement to identify the main church buildings as the “nucleus” of the community. Shared parking and redensification strategies weave together the church program with retail, commercial, community buildings, medical office, senior housing, conferencing hotel and live/work residential spaces.

Key to much of the mixed-use concept’s success is the option for shared parking and this should be of consideration before embarking on developing a mixed use master plan. Although each jurisdiction will have different ratios, the City of Westminster allows for a 20 percent shared parking ratio. This means that 20 percent of parking can be shared with surrounding uses, for instance office parking lots that may typically be empty on weekends can be opened for church use during Sunday services.

This approach reduces the overall requirement of parking spaces. But it’s also environmentally friendly because it takes less land to accommodate parking needs. In Westminster Nazarene’s case, the first phase calls for a surface lot with short-term parking on a future building site as the surface lot is replaced by future buildings and three “wrapped” parking structures (a wrapped parking structure is one that includes retail space which is more aesthetically pleasing than an exposed garage structure). This is an important strategy that minimizes parking footprints, creating more green open space and a connection with nature.

The plan also provides for a possible transit center on the northern portion of the site, enhancing the ability for the entire population of inhabitants and visitors to the community to be green regarding transit options.

RNL is also helping to design a mixed-use master plan for Christ’s Church of the Valley in Peoria, AZ, that sits on 115 acres of land. One of the fastest growing churches in the country, the church initially conceived of a joint development agreement with a local developer for 200,000-square-feet of development on a 15-acre corner site. The initial concept resulted in a sprawling suburban plan, but by considering and eventually pursuing a denser, 330,000-square-feet development, the church hopes to create greater future value for the land.

The first phase of the project, the children’s and youth buildings just been completed, provides 100,000-square-feet of space. The final campus build-out of 140,000 additional square feet will be used for alternative worship venues, office space, a nursery, children’s rooms, a chapel, numerous outdoor gathering areas, as well as an outdoor amphitheater.

Religious convention space

Thoughts about developing a religious focused convention and meeting facility at the intersection between the church and retail campuses has also been explored as a means of both serving ministry needs and creating another outreach opportunity.

Sixteen acres of mixed-use retail space has been master planned for the northeast corner of the site at the intersection of two well-traveled roads. Transition between the commercial area and the campus buildings is made to draw people in towards an opportunity to worship. Because the church displays no outward symbols of Christianity, places for subtle signage and enticement have been developed at strategic locations of high visibility.

RNL is currently helping CCV entitle the property to make it more attractive to the development community, including usage restriction, height limitations and design guidelines consistent with community standards. This entitlement process is anticipated to take about nine months, and includes shared parking and shared open space agreements that would be unique in Peoria, but have been well-received by the city because of some of the attractive neighborhood and environmental reasons discussed above. CCV anticipates utilizing the newfound cash influx to help grow their ministry and outreach needs, and ultimately grow the church and add new believers.

Mixed-use is a tool for developing diversity, creating a more vibrant livable community that is resource to the entire area. In short, an integrated, mixed-use church master plan can be a vital and relevant bridge to the community both now and in the future.

Doug Spuler is principal and Ken Anderson is senior associate at RNL Design, Denver, CO. [www.RNLDesign.com]



This “New Urbanist” trend makes sense as we are all doing more with less, and have an increased awareness of how suburban sprawl is a major contributor to the rapid depletion of the earth’s resources.

New Urbanism is characterized by denser, more efficient, master plans that emphasize walkable streets, a mix and balance of uses including residential, office/workplace, retail/leisure and green/open spaces, along with convenient access to public transit.

They are, by their nature, typically more environmentally-friendly due to their density and efficient use of space.


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