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White Rock church divided over housing proposal

First United Church officials are exploring a multi-million-dollar redevelopment of the White Rock site, with an eye to including four storeys of affordable housing.

Rev. Joan McMurtry confirmed this week that discussions began about two years ago, spurred by concerns with the church’s long-term financial sustainability.

But while McMurtry said response to the concept and process has been largely positive – a vote last month to temporarily transfer the church’s title garnered 72 per cent support, she said – opponents say at least a third of the congregation is against the move, and that many others don’t realize what is at stake.

“They don’t understand the consequences of what’s happening. It’s divisive… many members have already left over it,” said Don Boyce, a 12-year member of the congregation and former member of the Futures Committee that is looking at the project.

“It’s going to be very disruptive to lose the facility.”

The church, located at 15385 Semiahmoo Ave. just east of city hall, has been in the community for more than a century, and in its current building since the 1950s.

Redevelopment options identified through a feasibility study favour two scenarios, both of which would result in a significantly smaller church facility combined with residential units. The only difference is whether those units would be rental or market housing.

“The imagining is a four-storey housing complex with our ministry space built within it,” McMurtry said.

“Whatever our space would be, it would be brand-new, modern, multi-use space.”

But while McMurtry and Futures Committee co-chair Sharon Coates insist nothing has been decided – and that nothing may change – Boyce and youth leader Susan Hunter-Jivung say that is not the message they’re getting.

Boyce said he was “turfed” from the committee because he opposed the redevelopment and wanted to explore alternatives that “should have been and still should be pursued,” including refurbishing the existing building.

“My experience with the Futures Committee indicates to me that a decision was made to demolish the church and proceed down the road of producing 75 social-housing units, and the time of the committee was spent to justify that decision rather than to look at alternatives,” he said.

Coates, however, said Boyce wasn’t asked to leave the committee, but noted “we all had to agree we would follow the direction of the congregation.”

Boyce and Hunter-Jivung also describe a lack of consultation – with the congregation, user groups and surrounding neighbours.

Hunter-Jivung said affected groups and individuals were not asked for impact statements prior to the Nov. 10 vote to transfer the church’s title to the B.C. Conference – a move she said essentially gives up ownership of the church and is typically only taken when a church is folding.

McMurtry assured any panic is uncalled for.

She described the title transfer as “a bit of an odd situation,” made necessary by a decision to work with the provincial church and its property team. First United is among six churches in the same process, she said, and the transfer enables the property team to manage the redevelopment. It will be returned to First United – if redevelopment does not proceed, or after the development is complete – to whatever portion the church owns at that point.

“It’s just temporary; it says that on all the documents,” she said. “It’s been kind of a difficult concept for people to realize because it feels very, kind of scary to let your title go. But… we’re not transferring the title to strangers.”

She expects redevelopment would enable the church to enhance its ministries, and assured “there will be processes and conversations with the community.”

“We’re doing this whole thing so that there’ll never be a last Christmas at First United,” she said. “This is all about ministry, this is all about sustainability, this is all about our passion for doing the work that we’re doing.”

Whether redevelopment is viable won’t be known until next fall, McMurtry added. If it proceeds, it wouldn’t get underway “until 2015 or later.”

Hunter-Jivung said she advocates a step back, including a new vote on the title transfer, but McMurtry said that won’t happen.

Boyce said the situation has him debating his membership at First United on a daily basis.

“To me, it’s extremely sad.”

 

Tracy Holmes

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Tracy Holmes

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