Retail Store Closings Create Opportunities For Churches

by | Facilities

The COVID-19 crisis has accelerated a pre-existing trend of retail brands closing their brick and mortar locations. In 2019, a record 9,300+ retail stores closed in the U.S., a 50% increase over 2018. This trend, commonly referred to as the “Retail Apocalypse”, started in 2010 following the great recession and has been fueled by the changing spending habits of U.S. consumers and the growth of e-commerce.

As a result of the economic impact from the Coronavirus, the number of retail closures is projected to increase to as many as 15,000 in 2020. Some analysts are now estimating that up to 100,000 retail store locations could close down by 2025.

These retail closures represent potentially hundreds of millions of square feet of commercial space coming onto the market over the next 5 years, offering opportunities for many growing churches that are looking for more affordable expansion solutions.

The shift toward the use of unconventional buildings for worship has been underway for years, but with more large retail spaces available than ever before, we expect this trend to become even more prevalent.

Retail buildings can offer a number of advantages to ministries. Since these properties have much of the infrastructure already in place, including the building envelope, utilities and parking, it typically costs significantly less to purchase an existing building and remodel it than to build from the ground up on a new piece of land.

These buildings are also typically located in heavily populated areas with great visibility and accessibility from major roads. In addition, they can offer churches more flexibility in the future if they outgrow the space, since the building is more marketable and has broader appeal from a real estate standpoint.

However, every situation is unique and it’s important to consult a professional that can help you calculate all the potential costs as you evaluate your options.

Repurposing Buildings for Worship: 5 Key Things to Consider

1. Location

As you start to see available retail or other commercial buildings spring up in your area, it is very important to evaluate the relative position of any given property within the community. Will the demographics of the local community support your continued growth? What are the surroundings like? Are you going to suffer from the impact of businesses that may not be good neighbors to you, such as gas stations or industrial sites? What are the crime rates and how could that effect your property and your people? Is there good available access from roads and what is the proximity to your congregation? These are all vital questions to consider as you are evaluating the location of the proposed building.

2. Zoning

The city, county, or state determines which land uses are permitted within each zone. Seldom do we come across a site or a building that is actually designated as a “church zoned” site. Churches are often allowed in many zones including residential, but often under the category of conditional use. In this case, a Conditional Use Permit (CUP) will be required to ensure compatibility with surrounding land uses.

The CUP approval process can take a considerable amount of time to negotiate in some areas. Under this classification you will be required to submit plans that reveal your intent to use the property and you will be subject to a board or a commission that will evaluate the appropriateness of your proposed use. It often can lead to additional costs as the City board may add required improvements to the property that you had not planned. Know that good coordination with the City will generally be required before you lock in a purchase during what is called a “due-diligence” phase.

Future expandability of the building is another consideration. If there is sufficient land, what are the limitations to an expansion from both a zoning and building code perspective? Properties often have footprint allowances that may restrict the amount of future space that will be able to be placed onto the land. It may affect not only building footprint but allowable hardscape surfaces which will affect parking. These ought to be checked as well to insure the flexibility to add onto the facility should that be needed.

3. Parking

The building you find that is the treasure that you have been looking for perhaps is a “treasure” because there are serious limitations to available parking. Make sure that you are considering not just the parking requirements imposed by zoning ordinances but the real parking needs of your congregation. The trend these days is not to “over park” a site during planning, but that often results in a parking situation that is simply not enough for real life situations. We have found that parking needs to average about 40% of seats available in the worship space (higher for congregations with a lower number of children).

In general, visitors to your church will demand a reasonable parking solution that allows them to easily find a parking spot and get in and out of the lot without much restrictions. The existing parking lot of a retail or commercial space may also be required to be “upgraded” in terms of landscaping. Today there are limits to how many parking stalls you may have without a landscape island. This could affect your parking counts and will need to be accounted for as a cost to the project.

Access points that have been allowed in the past may also change in your new plan. This should be thoroughly reviewed with local officials during this due-diligence time period. It also needs to be clearly understood whether the local officials will insist on a drainage retention strategy to be applied to the property. This can add significant cost to any project and/or take up significant space on the site, thereby depleting parking or open space.

Certainly the condition of the existing parking lot also should be examined. Parking lot repaving can be expensive, so have a professional evaluate the surface to make sure that it will be viable.

4. Structural

We can think of the examination of a building like a check-up we might receive from a doctor. The doctor is going to examine our circulatory systems, perhaps our skeletal systems and our muscular systems. Similarly, we want to look at the systems for a building to make sure we have the basis behind a solid approach towards re-use or renovation.

How is the structure for the roof and wall systems laid out? Older buildings often made use of masonry interior walls, particularly common in church designs from the past. These walls provide challenges to opening spaces up to new uses. It can be an expensive endeavor to

remove these load bearing walls as it then requires new column placements along with subsurface concrete footings.

Line-of-sight obstructions (especially structural columns in the planned sanctuary area) can be a considerable obstacle in some cases. BGW has been involved in a number of conversions of large box retail stores into places of worship. Columns are typically placed in a grid ranging from 30’-45’. For most areas of the building, columns can be worked around, but in worship spaces this can be an impedance to good sight lines to a stage. These columns can be accommodated for with creative design and planning and in some cases, they can be removed and replaced with roof spans.

Large group gathering spaces within a building will naturally require that the ceilings heights be increased beyond what may be normal for smaller spaces. A recent BGW project involved the conversion of a large 148,000 SF home improvement facility for a church that required an 1,800 seat worship space. Even though the building had ample height from the floor to the ceiling of the structure, it still required the roof to be cut and elevated to accommodate the new sloped seating design for people to be able to see the stage from the back rows of the auditorium. In other cases, the ceiling height issue can be solved more simply by the removal of finished ceilings, allowing for an exposed / industrial look that has become a popular design trend in recent years.

These sorts of ceiling and roof alterations ought to be clearly understood during this critical due diligence stage of evaluating the property.

The structure of the worship space will also play a large role on acoustics, which is something that should not be underestimated. If the space has solid acoustics for the range of music played but the spoken word becomes difficult to understand due to reverberation or echo, the overall worship experience can be negatively impacted, especially for those with compromised hearing abilities. If the room is a hard-shelled space, it may require sound absorbing panels on the walls or ceiling to control and reduce noise and eliminate echo.

If the children’s ministry will be placed immediately adjacent to the worship area of the building and the walls separating these spaces are not acoustically designed, you may end up with unwanted noise cross-over. Many existing retail and commercial facilities also have thin building envelopes, which can impact worship acoustics. Consider how much outside noise from the surrounding area is infiltrating the building and whether additional acoustical treatments will need to be added to the space.

5. HVAC & Plumbing Systems

What is the condition of the existing systems for heating, cooling and plumbing? This can be important as utility bills for older structures can exceed newer buildings by a factor of 2-4 times. That can really hamper a ministry budget that would rather see monies actually go toward their church mission as opposed to maintaining a building. It is important to not only look at the way that distribution systems are set up but to look at the central plant – where the heat or chilled air is developed from. If the main equipment or system is outdated and in need of repair or replacement, this can substantially raise the costs for renovation.

Also important to consider is that older buildings may have been built prior to the employment of ventilation codes that require a building to exchange the inside air with fresh outside air. This can be very important for the large group gathering areas as it may require us to replace expensive equipment just to meet this one code requirement.

Due to COVID-19, indoor air quality and air circulation has also become a key concern. Is the building set up in such as way as to allow for air to be managed for viral spread? Certain types of systems are configured in such as way as to make easy changes to assist in this area, but others are not. Sometimes due to this lack of air movement, odors can also be an issue in older facilities. Lingering cooking odors or inadequate ventilation in restrooms can affect a lot of the other areas within the building.

HVAC systems can also impact the overall acoustics of a worship space. Old systems are typically loud and can be very distracting during worship services. It is important to know what the effect of air delivery is on the spaces within the building. Can people hear over the noise of high velocity air systems or will the ducting need to be redone to make this happen in a manner that meets acoustical expectations?

Plumbing Systems can also be an important category to review as older buildings often do not meet codes related to accessibility for the disabled. These are often related to the laws brought forward when the ADA (American with Disabilities Act) was enacted in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s. Although churches are technically exempt from the ADA, many of these requirements have now been instilled into the International Building Code, which any organization must adhere to when making changes to a facility. These codes may heavily affect the layout of bathrooms or the placement of bathrooms within the building. In addition, children’s spaces are best laid out with toilets and sinks inside the classrooms, due to security concerns. This can require extensive demolition to get plumbing lines proximate to the spaces.

This article was provided by Building God’s Way.

Sign Up for Connections, the Worship Facility Newsletter!


The ShareBuilt Story

As the founder and Executive Director of ShareBuilt, a nonprofit organization dedicated to connecting construction professionals with charitable groups in need, I am driven by a profound desire to make a meaningful impact on communities. The inception of ShareBuilt...