One disturbing aspect of Seattle’s downtown exodus is the likely departure and downsizing of many churches, historical anchors of downtown and urban life. These churches are venerable fixtures in Seattle life and many are more than a century old. Now they, like many mainstream Protestant churches, are facing difficult decisions as they suffer losses of in-person congregations due to the pandemic and other urban problems such as safety and parking costs.
Many sit on properties that would fetch high prices from developers. In turn, these properties may become part of the needed shift of Seattle’s core downtown from commercial offices to residential.
It is not easy to pry out details about these possible changes, as many churches are bound by nondisclosure agreements with developers. Also, these churches may be waiting for the real estate market to turn upward. Some congregations are in the delicate, protracted process of re-evaluation, with unclear outcomes. Below is a survey.
Gethsemane Lutheran Church
Let’s start with a success story. After a couple decades of process, the church, which dates back to 1885 and has Swedish roots, decided to sell its half-block parking lot to an apartment developer in 2008, and to use the proceeds from that sale to fix up the handsome, Scandinavian-modern sanctuary at Eighth and Lenora and to build 50 units of low-income housing, operated by Compass Housing Alliance. Incorporated into the new eight story building are church offices, a meeting room, a meditation garden, a basement day-room for Mary’s Place clients, and a lovely chapel, strikingly illuminated by colored glass panels and designed by the top Seattle architectural firm of Olson Kundig.
The path forward was full of bumps, particularly when the city of Seattle declined to help and forced the church to take out debt. Gethsemane continues today and has a new/old mission of helping newcomers and refugees to find services and be welcomed — just as it once did with Scandinavian migrants, explains the pastor Rev. Joanne Engquist. Pastor Engquist helps advise other urban churches, stressing the importance of good, participatory process, one detailed in this short video.
United First Methodist Church
This church, now successfully relocated to the Seattle Center area (Second and Denny), traces back to 1853, when it opened as the first church in Seattle. Its large downtown, neoclassical edifice at 5th and Marion opened in 1908. The grand, thousand-seat building was sold in 2007 as part of a towering commercial development (offices and hotel), and the congregation used the sale money to build a smaller facility in Lower Queen Anne, designed by Marilyn Brockman of Bassetti Architects. The old sanctuary was saved (thanks to County Executive Dow Constantine) and now serves as a hotel lobby and event space.
First Presbyterian Church
The fine modernist structure by designer Don Winkelmann of NBBJ opened in 1962 and occupies a full block at Spring and 8th on First Hill (just south of Town Hall, itself a former Christian Science Church). “First Pres” during its peak under the influential civic leader Rev. Mark Matthews was touted as the largest Presbyterian church in the nation, but the past 30 years have seen decline and legal controversy between the pastors of the church and the local presbytery that oversees it. A court dispute was settled in 2016 in favor of the presbytery, and the outsized church is now closed and the congregation is scattered. The property, zoned commercial, is very valuable, and the presbytery is said to be considering sale and development, some of which has already taken place in the sale to of the parking lot immediately north of the church, where twin towers of apartments now have been built.
Plymouth United Church (Congregational)
This venerable church has been a mainstay of liberal Seattle and a major draw for downtown forums, brunches, meetings, and services. It profiles itself as a social-justice church, now serving a smaller congregation. A church committee has been formed to explore possible redevelopment options including partial demolition. One popular redevelopment pattern, as with Gethsemane Lutheran, is to sell to a commercial developer part of the property and use the money from the sale to refurbish the main sanctuary and modernize support spaces. The senior pastor, the Rev. Dr. Kelle Brown, says, “Like many churches, we are discerning who we will be together. For the record, there is no sadness attached to this process. As a 153-year-old ministry in downtown Seattle, our commitment is to be the church — a vital beloved community who works to bend the arc of justice for all.”
Trinity Episcopal Church
A sturdy old church at 8th and James, takes its place along what used to be a row of churches on First Hill’s 8th Avenue (Episcopal, Christian Scientist, Presbyterian, Jewish, Catholic). Trinity says it is now in “a re-evaluation stage,” after an original developer for the site (who would have built a tall tower, including upgraded church facilities in the northern part of the property, keeping the sanctuary) is “not going forward,” though “project goals remain,” according to Rector Rev. Sabeth Fitzgibbons.
As these examples show, negotiating with churches can be protracted. Congregations are often split, putting the minister in a Solomonic spot. Often parishioners have migrated to suburban residences, making the trip to downtown a chore (not to mention the attraction of remote broadcasts). I was involved in the decade-long negotiations for purchasing the Fourth Church of Christ, Scientist, at 8th and Seneca, now Town Hall Seattle. During these protracted, frustrating negotiations, I never knew if the tiny local congregation or the Mother Church in Boston was calling the tune.
Nevertheless, these downtown properties are prime targets for housing developments and other centrally located amenities. Downtown needs more residential population, and the need for affordable housing is acute. Likewise, small neighborhood churches often have trouble affording major repairs, but do own Sunday Schools, church offices, and parking lots that can be converted to mid-rise housing.
An effort was made some years ago by Seattle architect Clint Pehrson, a specialist in church redevelopment, to combine several small churches in the University District into a multi-faith facility at the massive Methodist Temple on University Way. The coalition dissolved, and the Temple with its large seating capacity has fallen. As the church’s website says, “It is now time to say goodbye to this building and prepare for our new church building to be built over the next few years.”