Thursday, March 10, 2011

House Tour

Lou took attendees at Tuesday’s staff meeting on a tour of a house directly across Mayfair Drive from St. Paul’s. He suggested that the parish could buy the house and convert it to meeting rooms, space for the youth program, or, unbelievably, a rectory. The house could be financed from a capital campaign to be launched this summer. The house can be seen below. (Sorry about the photograph. It was taken during heavy rain, and the lot is rather overgrown.)

St. Paul’s Annex?


The idea of buying one of the houses adjacent to St. Paul’s has several times been considered by the Vestry. Obviously, the Vestry has not hitherto approved such a proposal. Probably what the church needs most is office space and storage space, and a nearby house could provide that. I have personally advocated such a purchase when nearby real estate has come on the market. I suspect the Vestry has not acted in these circumstances either because there was not a clear plan for what the church would do with a house or because it wasn’t obvious how to fund such a purchase.

I am told that the church has been given five months to make an offer on the house in question. My suspicion is that the owners came to the church. Selling to St. Paul’s could be attractive in a bad real estate market, in which buyers might be hard to find. But is the purchase a good move for the church?

It is difficult to see how. To begin with, stone houses in Mt. Lebanon do not come cheap. Whatever state the property is in—there is reason to believe the house is not in a good state of repair—it would need to be renovated to serve whatever role we assigned to it, and we would likely have to spend a good deal to bring it into code compliance as a public building by adding things like sprinklers. Even with a good deal of renovation, it is difficult to see how the building could be made handicapped accessible. It is a multi-story house whose entrance is a good deal higher than street level. We could easily spend half a million dollars and still not have a convenient or handicapped-accessible building.

Even if we had half a million dollars in hand, this looks like a solution in search of a problem. Does Lou really not have a plan, or does he have a plan he is simply not telling us? (The latter seems more likely.) He told the staff meeting that half the parishes in The Episcopal Church have rectories. That may have once been true, but I doubt it is any more. The Church Pension Fund has long recommended against parish rectories, and many of those properties that have not been sold off are being occupied by renters unrelated to the parish landlords. I know a lot of local parishes that have sold their rectories but not many with existing rectories. Cynthia Bronson-Sweigert has moved out of Redeemer’s rectory, which she thought too small. St. Andrew’s has converted its rectory into meeting space, though the upper floor is not in use because the parish did not have the money to bring it up to code.

In any case, buying a nearby house may not be the only way for the parish to get more space. Some storage could be had off-site. We might even be able to build over the parking lot. Such alternatives should be considered along with the purchase of adjacent real estate. Are we, in fact, using the space we have effectively?

Rather more disturbing is that Lou’s capital campaign, as we knew it would, is again rearing its ugly head. Surely, the real message from the Episcopal Church Foundation was that not only did the parish not like certain aspects of Fulfilling the Vision, but that the parish had issues that had to be dealt with before embarking on such a campaign. Whatever you may think of the emotional health of the parish, however, we appear to be unable to fully finance even our payroll, much less make necessary repairs to our building. (With all the rain, water has been leaking into the chapel, by the way.) Surely the building we already own needs to take precedence over renovation of a building we might buy.

It is time for St. Paul’s to take a serious look at the state of the parish. The visioning we did a year and a half ago was a sham. Real engagement by the members of the parish is required. We need to start over, developing a realistic vision for the future—a vision owned by parishioners, not simply by the rector.


Michele said...

Some comments in response:

1) While you are correct that the property owner approached St. Paul's with this opportunity, there is no "secret plan." It is entirely reasonable for Lou+ to solicit staff opinions on possible uses for the property.

2) Opportunities for the use of this property -- or not -- are currently, and have been, under discussion by the vestry. No action will go forward without more solid plans and majority vestry agreement first.

3) I am very sorry that you view the visioning process so negatively. I know that you were in there when the undercroft was full of people making their wish lists. Fewer people took part in later meetings to formulate the parish mission statements, but no one was barred and nothing about the process was a secret.

Michele Baum
St. Paul's vestry

Lionel Deimel said...


I cannot speak for everyone, but I can tell you why I did not continue with the visioning process. I suspect I am not unique

In the first session, we were only allowed to talk about what was right with the parish, and we ended with a wish list of everything imaginable. I wanted to talk about things that I thought needed to be fixed, and I know I was not alone in that regard. My feeling was that if all the sessions were going to about how wonderful we were and how nice it would be if everyone would get a pony, it was a waste of my time to continue with the process. Had I known that the final “product” was going to be a capital campaign, rather than some advertising slogan—though we got that, too—I might have continued with the process. In any case, it is obvious that the process did not get significant buy-in from the parish, since the enthusiasm for the capital campaign was—how shall I put it—tepid.

It certainly appeared that Lou had an agenda for the visioning process that he did not make public.

Michele said...

The agenda, Lionel, is to grow St. Paul's. There is no general agreement on how to do it, nor, I suspect, will there be. The church is no different than any other segment of society that way. What some see as necessary and desirable, others find anathema or worse. That's why they're called "growing pains."