In search of ‘sustainability,’ Admiral Congregational Church shows early concepts of its site’s potential future

(King County Assessor’s Office photo)

By Tracy Record
West Seattle Blog editor

Five years after becoming pastor of Admiral Congregational Church, Rev. Andrew Conley-Holcom has to shepherd it through a process with much at stake: The church and its neighborhood’s future.

That’s happening not through sermons, but through conversations like the one he led last week, standing before dozens of people in the church’s living-room-esque gathering space, wearing not a collar but a beanie.

“You’re here on the ground floor,” he explained, as a preface to the presentation on Tuesday night (October 8th).

If that was the ground floor, then you could say the foundation for the conversation was laid last December, when the church hosted an Admiral Neighborhood Association meeting, and the pastor told ANA the same thing: Not changing is not an option.

He began last week by putting it all in context, for those not familiar with the church’s operations and the role in the community. “Our goal is to be the neighborhood church of North Admiral.” And with the Jehovah’s Witnesses moving out, he said, “we kinda are.”

He talked about the church’s social activism, from bystander-intervention training to a new West Seattle Anti-Racist Book Club. The building houses support groups for a variety of addictions/recoveries, plus performing-arts groups and A Child Becomes Preschool (WSB sponsor) which uses the church’s entire lower floor and is “busting at the seams,” the pastor said proudly.

He voiced the church’s vision: “We want to be a center of gravity and work for justice and mercy here in North Admiral.”

Then, its reality: Seattle is quite unchurched; some people of faith have given religion something of a bad name, “and we have an uphill battle to articulate what we’re about,” so the congregation has shrunk, and the committed people have grown older. The building is 56 years old and within a decade or so of catastrophic failure. The building design has “meaningful issues.” So in the next 5-10 years, “some bills are coming due that we won’t be able to cover.” To keep a minister on staff, to keep space available for all the organizations that use it, something has to change.

He said the congregation had already rejected the idea of selling off part of the property and using that money to renovate the existing building. Also rejected: The idea of selling and leaving the neighborhood. “We’re the oldest church in West Seattle” – celebrating 120 years this month.

At last December’s ANA meeting, Rev. Conley-Holcom mentioned speaking with City Councilmember Lisa Herbold about the need for local projects that could include affordable housing. For this meeting, Herbold was present, and he gave the floor to her for a few minutes. She stressed something she’s reiterated in campaign speeches – that building more affordable housing is a major way to reduce homelessness. She explained the city Office of Housing‘s role, noting that the voter-approved Housing Levy has built 17,000 affordable housing units and has 4,000 more on the way before 2022. She offered something of an affordable-housing primer, and also explained the Mandatory Housing Affordability component of HALA, as well as the Multi-Family Tax Exemption’s role in facilitating affordable units in some prjects. What kind of affordable housing would be required in a project here, would depend on what’s proposed.

The discussion turned specific. What’s the property’s zoning? Lowrise 3. (That’s now 55 feet.) What other kinds of restrictions – lot coverage, setback?

Rev. Conley-Holcom said the bottom line is that so many people – from teachers to firefighters – can’t afford to live in the city. “And that’s messed up!” So he’s been in touch with Herbold all year long.
For Admiral Church to remain “a center for progressive Christianity,” while keeping the preschool, the support groups, etc., and to “set ourselvs up to continue to exist,” providing some housing seems to be “an absolute necessity for how we rethink the use of this space.” If the church can’t sort out its future, they’ll wind up having to sell to “somebody who wants to make a ton of money off this place.”

So – on to what they’ve brainstorming, with architecture firm GGLO. Rev. Conley-Holcom showed early-stage renderings of potential massing (size/shape, not final appearance) for two buildings that could be built on the 27,000-square-foot site:

The pastor cautioned, “We don’t know if we can afford to do this … this is a $16 million to $20 million project. We have $200,000 in the bank. So we’re going to have to partner with developers.” And the project would have to include market-rate housing. They want to include a public space. That’s when the decade-old California Place Park brouhaha briefly surfaced (neighbors intensely opposed an effort a decade ago to try to improve the small city park space east of the church). “We tried to get a playspace there,” called out a voice from the crowd.

The discussion moved on. The church hopes to put together a team, including GGLO, a land-use lawyer, consultants who interact with developers. Though they weren’t discussed in detail, these concepts for what could be in the buildings were tacked up on a meeting-room wall:

The pastor wondered aloud if there’s “someone out there who can help us finance this project?” He said they have up to a year to figure that out.

Then – the community questions. First to speak, a nearby resident who said she might not mind if a developer built something instead of the community hub the church envisioned, because the support-group attendees were disruptive.

Another attendee identifying herself as a preschool parent said that a community is about more than its residents.

Next question: How would the project pay the bills? One idea, said the pastor, is for the sanctuary to also be a performing arts/events venue. The idea is that one building would be “missional” – the church, preschool, etc. – while the other would be the housing “that makes the thing work.”

Though parking wouldn’t be required, due to transit in the area, the pastor said they were committed to including it.

When would all this happen? Conley-Holcom repeated that if nothing happens, they’ll have to sell the property in five to 10 years, so they need to “get this rolling in the next couple years.”

Another neighbor said she’s always liked the openness of the site, so the prospect of a “big huge apartment complex … scares me.”

“I’m with you. I wish we didn’t have to do it,” said the pastor.

“We know you have to develop, we know you want to offer services …” said another neighbor, while also confessing being disquieted by the potential project size.

“It’s a massive impact to those of us who live right next to this,” yet another neighbor said, calling the “level of density … disconcerting.”

Is the church willing to do something smaller? It’s not a question of being willing … but what would work out. “We’re not trying to make money in the housing market … our goal is long-term sustainability.”

WHAT’S NEXT: Rev. Conley-Holcom said they hope to have more gatherings for feedback, but in the meantime, let the church know your thoughts: “Give me all your feedback, all your hopes and fears.” Along with email communication, you can also find him at Admiral Bird with community office hours – all that info is here.

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