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WHEN Kurt Marx founded a Lutheran church in 1953 in Vancouver, he moonlighted as a carpenter to earn the salary that his tiny congregation of German immigrants could not pay. By the late 1960s Oakridge Lutheran Church ministered to hundreds with services in German. Today the worshippers are fewer, older and praying in Mandarin. But the property the church occupies is now worth a fortune. A dilapidated bungalow a few blocks away is on the market for C$2.7m ($2m). So Oakridge Lutheran is cashing in. It has asked city hall for permission to tear the church down and replace it with shops, housing and a smaller house of worship. It hopes to start construction this year. Sales of church property happen in many places, but business is especially brisk in Canada’s western metropolis. There are two main reasons: a surge in property prices, which exceeds that in almost every other Canadian city, and an influx of Asian immigrants, who bring their own religious traditions. West-coast hedonism may be a third factor, suggests David Ley, a geographer at the University of British Columbia. Pews in churches with European roots are emptying faster than those in other parts of Canada. They are the principal sellers. All this makes Vancouver’s sacred-property market “unique”, says Leonardo Di Francesco of Churchrealtors.com, which has sold more than 100 houses of worship over the past two decades. Often the buyers are burgeoning Asian communities, in part because it is hard to get permission to rezone church property for secular use. Terrorised by drug addicts, the nuns of the Gold Buddha Monastery in Vancouver’s seedy Downtown Eastside district sought safer quarters. Mr Di Francesco’s firm found them in a Salvation Army unit, whose hostel for jobless men had emptied out and whose programmes for disadvantaged youth attracted fewer participants. Now the main hall at the Salvation Army’s former premises is adorned with 10,000 golden Buddhas. The basement bowling alley provides storage for prayer books and ritual drums. This year, a Hindu community in eastern Vancouver sold its temple for nearly C$2m to a growing Chinese Christian congregation; the Hindus wanted even bigger premises. Whether selling to sacred or secular buyers, churches try not to be greedy. They feel obliged to help their communities, for example by alleviating the shortage of “affordable” housing created by Vancouver’s property boom, says Robert Brown of Catalyst Community Developments, a non-profit property developer. The rental housing planned by Oakridge Lutheran, to be built by Mr Brown’s company, is to be modestly priced. For First Baptist Church in downtown Vancouver, the plunge into the market is prompted not by decline but by growth. It plans to invest proceeds from redeveloping land behind its Gothic-style church in expanding its own facilities and building a block of low- rent housing. That will be dwarfed by a 56-storey tower with 300 condominiums. The site will not lose its spiritual aura: the proposed skyscraper is designed to look like a set of organ pipes. From the print edition: The Americas
Canadian property Steeples for sale Churches sell up, without completely selling out Apr 2nd 2016 | VANCOUVER | From the print edition

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