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Church in a high-rise: FUMC Miami reinvents, rebuilds

Church in a high-rise: FUMC Miami reinvents, rebuilds

Church Vitality

MIAMI—There are no soaring steeples, gothic arches or bell towers in the architectural plans for First United Methodist Church of Miami’s new house of worship.

Instead, in a decision that may portend the future of churches in America, FUMC Miami will relocate to four floors within an ultramodern 64-story high-rise on Miami’s famed Biscayne Boulevard.

FUMC Miami is located on what many would consider prime real estate, Biscayne Blvd., a few miles from South Beach. Current plans are to re-develop the church property into a 64-story high-rise. 

It’s a deal that’s been in the making for more than two years. In an effort to bolster the church’s dwindling coffers while appealing to a younger, urban population searching for a spiritual foundation, the Miami church is reinventing itself.

Rev. Dr. Audrey Warren, senior pastor of FUMC Miami, said it’s a matter of survival.

As today’s traditional churches struggle with declining memberships leading some to close their doors, church leaders are looking at ways to appeal to a new generation of churchgoers.   

“When I became pastor at this church, I noticed a trend,” Warren said. “More than 80 percent of our top 50 contributors were over 65 years old. With mortality, this would mean we would have to decrease our budget by $14,000 a year.”

Warren said it became obvious that the 500-member church would either have to find a new way to fund programs and services or be forced to cut those programs and services.

It was a rude awakening for the 122-year-old congregation.

The church formed in 1966 when two Miami congregations, Trinity Methodist Episcopal Church and White Temple Methodist Episcopal Church, merged. FUMC Miami is situated on a prime acre of real estate at 400 Biscayne Blvd., just a few miles from the toney playground of the rich and famous, South Beach.

Over the years, the neighborhood around the church has replaced its single-family neighborhoods with shopping venues, restaurants, hotels, nightclubs and high-rise condominiums.

Longtime church members have migrated to the suburbs, leaving behind an urban population of young professionals who prefer the convenience of city living.

Unfortunately, this new population tends to be transitory, Warren said. They move here for a few years and then leave in pursuit of new jobs and lifestyles.

The days of generations of families attending the same church are over. Unfortunately, these young, urban members of the congregation don’t have the long-term stake needed to sustain the church, Warren said.

Recognizing this in October 2015, FUMC Miami formed an exploratory team to look at how other churches are dealing with this new reality.

Like the Miami church, there are urban churches around the country that occupy expensive pieces of real estate but struggle to fill the pews.

Among the churches the team looked at was a United Methodist church in Washington, D.C., which sold its property to start an endowment fund, then rebuilt the church into a high-rise building on the property.

The church council at FUMC Miami agreed it was an idea worth exploring.

“We began sending out letters of intent to developers in the area to see if we could do something similar,” said Warren.

Miami developer Property Markets Group, led by Kevin Maloney and Ryan Shear, was quick to respond to the council’s query.

PMG is well-known in Miami for its urban redevelopment projects, including creating affordable residential units with amenities geared to young professionals who work in the city.

Shear said the opportunity to redevelop the Miami church property was too exciting to ignore.

“So many churches in this country are faced with financial issues,” Shear said. “They need a system of monetizing their real estate so they can put away money for the future.”

PMG, in collaboration with Toronto-based Greybrook Realty Partners, offered to buy the property at 400 Biscayne Boulevard for $55 million.

In return, PMG would demolish the existing church and build two high-rise structures on the property containing 690 apartments. One would be an 84-story apartment tower with 20,000 square feet of commercial space. The other would be a 64-story apartment tower with FUMC Miami occupying four stories, giving the church 20,000 square feet (just 7,000 square feet shy of the current church building).

It was a win-win for the church, said Warren. The church would use the proceeds from the sale to create a $40 million endowment that would sustain it well into the future.

“That is almost seven times our current budget,” Warren said. “The timing was right for the church to take advantage of the revitalization in the neighborhood and gracefully grow together with the thriving city around us.”

Once demolition begins on the current church property, FUMC Miami will still be able to serve area homeless populations through its own Homeless Mission of Downtown Miami. It's a mobile ministry that feeds 200 twice weekly and offers mobile showers.

But would the congregation back the plan?

“There was a little hesitancy at the beginning. It’s always heartbreaking to have to move a facility,” said Warren. “But our church has had to reimagine itself many times over the years. The older members of our congregation are pioneers and are always looking to do something new. And our congregation understands this is a different way of being ‘church.’ They’re excited about the opportunity to engage more in downtown Miami and reach more young people.”

Rev. Dan Jackson, director of the Vital Church Initiative for the Florida Conference, said this could be the solution to saving other struggling churches.

“This is a terrific concept in which a church repurposes assets to produce income for ministry rather than having property that is now too large and is a financial liability for the congregation,” Jackson said. “Everything about this is forward-looking. On the other side of this, First Miami will have an endowment for ministry and a modern facility appropriate for the mission field.”

Shear hopes to forge similar partnerships with other churches.

“It’s a big advantage if you’re a church,” said Shear. “We basically become their partner, and they go from cash-strapped to a brand-new church.”

In return, PMG is able to maximize the property’s use while meeting the growing demand for what the development community has labeled “X Social Communities,” the X-Generation of young urban professionals who are seeking housing downtown near their workplaces.

He said having a resident church in an apartment tower fits right in with the type of communities PMG is creating, which not only offer affordable living spaces but provide opportunities for social interaction.

“The entire process has been organic. There’s a mass movement of urban professionals relocating to urban core centers,” Shear said. “And they tend to be highly social. A church marries itself well to this kind of community.”

The sale of the church property to PMG was completed in January. Easter Sunday will be the last service held at the current location, as PMG will begin construction on the first tower on the property shortly thereafter.

In the months to come, PMG will demolish the existing church and begin building the second tower that the church will occupy. Warren said FUMC Miami is prepared to go mobile.

Church services will be held at nearby Greater Bethel AME Church, and the church offices will be relocated to a WeWork co-working rental space.

Warren said the church has already taken the first step in its plan to go on the road by establishing the Homeless Mission of Downtown Miami, a mobile ministry that feeds nearly 200 homeless people twice a week and offers mobile showers for the homeless.

The church has formed a committee that will meet with the PMG architect to help design the new church’s exterior and interior, including signage and a separate entrance.

“In the meantime, we’ll be transitioning out of this space,” Warren said.

She said the congregation is in the process of gathering all the church’s historical materials. When the time comes to bulldoze the building, they plan to preserve the church’s stained glass and organ.

Warren said this will allow the congregation to honor its roots while looking to the future.

“This collaboration will allow us to survive,” Warren said. “It gives the church a whole new lease on life.”

--D’Ann Lawrence White is a freelance journalist based in Valrico.

Editor’s Note: Donate here to the Florida Conference Hurricane Irma Fund to help churches and the neighborhoods that surround them. Volunteer to bring yourself or a team to help with the recovery. Together, with God, we are bigger! #flumcWeAreBigger

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