Seattle's First Presbyterian Church, following in the footsteps of other downtown congregations, is considering redeveloping its multimillion-dollar property next to Interstate 5.
Seattle’s First Presbyterian Church, following in the footsteps of other downtown congregations, is considering redeveloping its multimillion-dollar property next to Interstate 5.
The church doesn’t intend to abandon its longtime home on fast-changing First Hill, but to find better ways to engage with and serve the neighborhood and downtown, said Tim Newton, director of operations. “Our thinking is, we’re going to stay here,” he said.
Still, some or all of the property could be sold or leased. Church buildings could be razed and replaced with residential or commercial high-rises like those going up nearby.
Nothing has been decided, Newton said: “We’re really in a discernment phase.”
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Two major projects recently have been completed within blocks of the church, and at least four more are under construction or in the pipeline.
If First Presbyterian does decide to redevelop, “it would be nothing new, and certainly in keeping with the rest of the neighborhood,” said Tony Fuoco, president of the First Hill Improvement Association.
The church’s Brutalist architecture-style sanctuary, two other church buildings and a parking lot fill a full block just east of Interstate 5, between Seventh and Eighth avenues and Madison and Spring streets. City zoning allows mixed-used buildings up to 160 feet tall.
The church also owns parking lots that occupy most of the block just to the north, next to Town Hall. Zoning there permits apartment or condo towers up to 240 feet tall.
A redevelopment vision statement adopted by the church’s governing council speaks of such potential secular uses as retail, housing, offices and hotels. But it also says any development would include gathering space for the congregation and space for urban-oriented ministries.
The statement envisions “a church in an urban village” and says redevelopment “would allow the church to own its new facility, debt-free, and fund mission initiatives for years to come.”
The assessed value of First Presbyterian’s 2.1 acres, not including the buildings, is more than $14 million. The market value of the land is probably significantly higher. A 0.19-acre parking lot nearby that also is zoned for high-rise condos sold last year for $3.55 million.
While the church, established in 1869, has occupied the site since 1907, the current buildings date only to the 1960s. They aren’t historic, Newton said, but they are aging, a factor in the congregation’s deliberations.
Bringing the buildings up to code could cost $6 million to $10 million, he said. What’s more, he added, members are questioning whether the 1969 concrete sanctuary’s Brutalist architecture — a style that is stark, blocky and rough — helps or hinders what the church hopes to become.
“Is it really asking people to come in,” Newton asked, “or is it an extension of the [old U.S.] courthouse across the freeway?”
Like most downtown churches, First Presbyterian’s membership has declined steeply over the years. Newton estimated it at 150, but said attendance has begun to increase in recent months.
Any redevelopment would require the approval of the church’s parent body, the regional Presbytery of Seattle, which has appointed a task force to work with the congregation. The Rev. Gary Barckert, the task force’s chairman, said the group expects a formal proposal from First Presbyterian by late spring.
The task force will review not only the project’s finances but how well it fits the church’s vision of its mission in the central city, he said.
Just across the street from First Presbyterian, developer Opus Northwest is building a nine-story, 200,000-square-foot office building at Seventh and Madison. Last year, it opened M Street, a 17-story mixed-use project on Madison between Eighth and Ninth.
Harbor Properties is building a seven-story, 81-unit apartment building, the Landes, at Eighth and Marion. Skyline at First Hill, a 26-story retirement community, is under construction on the block bounded by Eighth, Ninth, Columbia and Cherry.
Horizon House, another retirement community at Ninth and University, recently completed a 19-story addition. Two condo towers, 25 stories and nine stories, have been proposed at Eighth and Seneca.
After 40 years, downtown at last is moving across I-5, said Denny Onslow, Harbor Properties’ executive vice president.
“The freeway has been more of a psychological barrier than a physical barrier,” he said. “There’s been a stigma.”
Developers hope to enhance links between First Hill and downtown, Onslow said, including improvements to make the Madison Street overpass over I-5 more pedestrian-friendly.
At least three other historic downtown congregations have sold property for redevelopment in recent years.
First United Methodist Church waged a long fight with preservationists over plans to tear down its buildings on Fifth Avenue, including its century-old sanctuary, to make way for a skyscraper. The sanctuary was saved last year in a complex transaction that limited development to the site of a newer church annex.
Gethsemane Lutheran Church and Trinity Episcopal Church have sold parking lots to high-rise developers.
Eric Pryne: 206-464-2231 or firstname.lastname@example.org