Faithful Development: Stewardship of property for mission during a real estate boom.

News broke this week that Governor Evers’ proposed capital budget includes funds for a new state historical museum. There is a proposal on the table to redevelop much of the block on which Grace Church is located with a new museum as the anchor tenant. We’ve been in occasional conversation with the developers for almost five years, most recently before the election last fall. At that time, we were told that the project’s future would be determined after the election and its fate might depend on the election’s outcome. That Governor Evers has included it in his capital budget is one more step in a long process. Currently, construction is anticipated to begin in the Fall of 2021 with completion in 2023.

It’s not at all clear whether or how Grace Church might participate in this major development. Early on, it was thought that part of our property might be needed in order to assure adequate parking for the project but as plans have changed, that seems less likely. At the same time, our west wing which currently houses our homeless shelter and food pantry, is underutilized and may be ripe for development.

When I first learned of the proposed redevelopment of our block, I was excited because I saw the possibility of our participation in such development to be a way of securing long-term financial viability for Grace Church and its ministries in the midst of our rapidly changing culture and the decline of mainline Christianity in the US.

During my tenure at Grace, I have become increasingly interested in issues of urban planning, development, sustainability, and how Christian theology and Christian churches intersect with those issues. I spent my sabbatical in 2016 reading widely from Jane Jacobs to Richard Sennett to those few theologians who are thinking about such questions. I also visited cities from Richmond to Boston, as well as Seattle and Portland, to explore how congregations in urban settings were thinking about their property and using it to connect with their neighborhoods.

Recently, I have begun to see that questions of real estate development are not just about financial sustainability, more importantly they are questions that have at their heart theological and ethical dimensions. One reason for this is that this redevelopment is occurring in a city that is among the most segregated in the nation, in which racial inequities are among the highest in the nation. At the same time, our real estate boom is not creating affordable housing.

When I met with the mayor last April about the desperate need for a new men’s shelter, purpose-built and adequate to the needs of our community, he immediately turned the conversation to possible uses for a new development on our property. In a conversation with another elected official, I was asked what I thought the city of Madison’s core value was. My reply came immediately, “real estate development.”

I came across a book that will be published next week: Samuel Stein’s Capital City: Gentrification and the Real Estate State.

the growing centrality of urban real estate to capital’s global growth strategy. Through this process, the price of land becomes a central economic determinate and a dominant political issue. The clunky term “gentrification” becomes a household word and displacement an everyday fact of life. Housing becomes a globally traded financial asset, creating the conditions for synchronized bubbles and crashes. Government, particularly at the municipal level, becomes increasingly obsessed with raising property values and redistributing wealth upward through land and rents. Real estate developer Donald Trump becomes first a celebrity and ultimately a president. Taken together, we witness the rise of the real estate state, a political formation in which real estate capital has inordinate influence over the shape of our cities, the parameters of our politics and the lives we lead.

You can read an excerpt of the book here:

From what little I’ve read, Stein seems to be describing the situation in Madison well.

As property owners, churches participate in this “real estate state.” Diana Butler Bass points out that in many cities, the cumulative property owned by churches and religious organizations is significant, making them among the largest nonprofit landowners. As Christianity declines and demographic shifts take place, churches in urban cores are often seen more as financial assets than as ministry opportunities. Across the country we have seen numerous sales, property developments and the like, often with significant financial windfalls for congregations and denominations. We saw this happen here in Madison with the redevelopment of the St. Francis House Episcopal Campus Ministry. A private student housing development on a portion of the land funds not only UW Madison’s campus ministry, but also supports diocesan campus ministry elsewhere. And yes, I was actively involved in that project.

When Willie James Jennings spoke in Madison recently, he emphasized the importance of place for Christian theology, especially given the ways that our theology has not seen itself as grounded in local and spacial contexts. At one point he said, “planning and zoning meetings are the most important meetings for determining the futures of our communities. Churches and Christians should be present and engaged at these meetings.”

Our churches, especially older churches constructed in traditional religious architectural styles, are increasingly witnesses to an alternative to the glass-clad buildings of contemporary cities. While they are symbols of the sacred and gathering places for the faithful, their very presence in the heart of cities bear witness to an alternative to the neo-liberal, capitalist, and consumerist culture in which we live. When we sell our property, or redevelop it in order to maximize profit, we succumb to the idolatry of the market and abandon our allegiance to the Christ who died as a victim of the imperial system of domination.

Our churches are not only pieces of property, they are outposts of the reign of God. They should model the community and world Jesus proclaimed and that God is bringing forth. In our stewardship of our property, our primary concerns should be to create community, to support and nurture the flourishing of the residents of our neighborhoods. My hope is that as redevelopment plans for our block move forward, Grace Church can be an advocate for a project that values justice, diversity, and a vibrant neighborhood where all residents can flourish, as well as profit.