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Raleigh in 2022: How church properties could be a solution

How could Raleigh be better for more communities in 2022? We asked local community leaders and doers to share their ideas for the future. 

Next up: Clark Rinehart, a civic & social entrepreneur who is working to make the world a more equitable place and founder of The Steeple Collective. He is particularly interested in the intersection of community engagement, community development, and economic development.

In what feels like a previous life, he studied industrial engineering, served as a local church Pastor, and ran a coworking space. 

By Clark Rinehart

Here’s the Church, here’s the steeple, open the door… and see fewer and fewer people.

In your imagination, stand at the North Carolina State Capitol in Downtown Raleigh. Now, spin around a few times, what do you notice? 

Beautiful historic trees, stately government buildings, museums, an emerging urban core, and steeples… steeples everywhere, including two First Baptist churches. 

Over the last several decades, the American Church has waned in influence and engagement, even in the American South. By no means is every church or denomination declining, but statistically there has been a clear generational shift. 

As lots of non-native Raleighites have experienced, the American South has long been connected to a particular sense of religiosity — some might even call it “cultural Christianity.” For instance, when my wife moved to Raleigh from Cincinnati in 2012, a colleague asked her where she went to church. How did that colleague even know that she was a person of faith? It’s a peculiar first, or close to first, question for those of us who grew up outside of the region. We do frequently attend church. But, among our peers, even in Raleigh, we are more the exception than the rule. In short, there is a supply and demand issue.

You might be thinking, “I love seeing the historic churches when I walk around downtown,” and I do too. Somewhat. 

Many of these churches and their esteemed parishioners have borne witness to the City of Raleigh’s growth from a sleepy, planned government town to a booming city. 

These structures themselves tell a story of Raleigh, its people, and the greater community over the years. They are striking examples of architecture that have stood the test of time, but they also carry an unfortunate reality in their bones: they are stifling our opportunity to build a more creative, equitable and inclusive city where all of our neighbors can flourish. 

Put differently, for Downtown Raleigh and our urban core as a whole, these local churches are not sharing good news with their neighbors, in a practical sense, by sitting on underutilized assets. 

Numerous church assets inside of the Beltline (I-440, for those less familiar) have favorable by-right, higher density and mixed-use zoning that could be repurposed for and/or developed into affordable, missing middle and attainable housing along with approachable space for other much-needed community activities in our urban core. 

From my preliminary research, local churches of varying denominations/flavors own 162 acres of dirt inside the Beltline, which corresponds to approximately $564M in tax-assessed valued assets. 

You read that right: Half a billion dollars in tax-assessed valued assets. These are not just steeples, but adjacent parcels, like 3-story office buildings (see 200 West Morgan Street) and surface parking lots (see everywhere). 

More of our neighbors in Raleigh are not able to find accessible housing, especially downtown. Displacement is rampant particularly across East, South and Southeast Raleigh. Confessionally, I am a part of the problem as a downtowner who has the privilege of affording a market-rate single-family home. 

This trend will only continue if we don’t act now. We could fundamentally and generationally shift the housing stock in our city by activating some, not all, of these underutilized church (and social-impact nonprofit) assets. 

Now, I don’t want to sound uncharitable towards the local church either. I moved to the Triangle in 2009 to attend Duke Divinity School and have served on church staff over the years. I’m not advocating for a downtown without churches or demolishing the historic structures. However, I am saying that things need to change quickly or else we will face growing inequities and disparities in our community. 

There isn’t a simple solution to most problems facing us today. But, I would argue that partnering with churches and nonprofits who own their assets could be a solution. If those underutilized assets are activated for the common good, it could go a long way to creating a community where all of our neighbors can thrive… something I think every human deserves. This can truly be good news for our city.

More ideas: Start the Civic Renaissance, by volunteer nonprofit executive director Amber Smith

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