A view of the new St. Monica’s. Illustration courtesy of Collecdev

Keeping churches ‘alive and kicking’

  • August 23, 2019

Toronto’s incredible, seemingly unstoppable condo market may furnish this city’s Catholics with a brand new, $17-million, architectural gem of a midtown church sometime around 2025.

A deal between the Archdiocese of Toronto and real estate developer Collecdev will put St. Monica’s Church on Broadway near Yonge and Eglington into a new building in front of a 44-storey residential tower. Collecdev has three projects under construction, another seven slated for future work and one 521-unit project in midtown already completed. 

Order of Canada architect Marianne McKenna has produced the initial design for the new church. The project goes to city hall this fall with a final decision expected in 2021.

There are over 100 cranes dotting Toronto’s skyline, most of them downtown and most of them building residential towers. That’s more construction cranes than any other city in North America, with immigration and booming tech, banking and media industries driving the city’s population ever higher. Toronto condo prices between 2015 and 2018 jumped 50 per cent. In June the average price on over 8,000 condominium apartments sold in the 416 was $624,794, up six per cent over 2018, according to the Toronto Real Estate Board.

While some might think it’s time for the Archdiocese of Toronto to cash in its chips, trading real estate for money and all the well-funded pastoral initiatives it could buy, it’s not so simple, chancellor of temporal affairs Jim Milway told The Catholic Register.

“St. Monica’s was an opportunity that came to us. It may be a one-off,” he said. “There’s a few others that we’ve got in mind, but frankly we’re focussing our energies on making sure that we do St. Monica’s right.”

While it’s certainly true that the Archdiocese of Toronto has real estate, there are churches — many of them with heritage designations — sitting on the most valuable plots of land in the portfolio. One of those is St. Monica’s, a short walk from the Eglinton subway station, but it also has a fairly large parking lot in front of the little church constructed in 1906 then practically rebuilt in 1959.

Few churches in the downtown core have empty land or substantial parking lots. Many of them were built before cars came to dominate the city and city planning. In the inner suburbs, far from subways, there are aging churches surrounded by underperforming asphalt. But outside the downtown core, there is neither the kind of market or city planning appetite that would allow for very tall buildings.

The big money is in big towers.

“The more height at St. Monica’s the more money we make. So, guilty as charged,” said Milway. “The more we make out of that, the more we’ve got in the archdiocese that we can lend to parishes downtown. … One of the benefits of St. Monica’s is it does allow us to keep churches in the central core alive and kicking.”

While Milway and others at the archdiocese have certainly thought about the potential at St. Monica’s over the years, it was actually the parish that drove them to go looking for a deal. Once parishioners started asking about the possibility of selling the land locked up in parking, Milway and his staff swung into action.

Rather than just calling up a real estate broker, the archdiocese did its own studies into the development potential for the site, then went directly to developers looking for proposals. This saves the church brokerage fees and commission, and gives the archdiocese a greater say in how the site is configured. 

Toronto’s Archbishop Cardinal Thomas Collins has placed a high value on putting the church in front of the condo tower, where it will be visible to everybody walking and driving by — an evangelical sign of a living, vibrant church in the city. 

“If we have a chance to beautify our churches, we’re going to. We want people to know we’re here and we’re not leaving,” Milway said. “There’s going to be, on Broadway, a big church in your face, with a cross, and it’s going to say St. Monica’s Roman Catholic.”

The new four-storey church will be attached to the 398-unit condo tower (including a handful of units for retired priests). The development includes a two-storey parking garage with 177 parking spaces. St. Monica’s parishioners would get free use of the underground parking Saturday evenings, Sundays and on major feast days. 

From Collecdev’s point of view, there’s more to a good deal at St. Monica’s than just money and the real estate market, said company president Maurice Wager.

“Putting a church together with residential condos is certainly one of an infinite number of combinations where we can start thinking about healthy and balanced communities,” Wager said. “The right way to think about it (the real estate market) is certainly through the lens of being cognizant and sensitive to the underlying and existing conditions. In the case of St. Monica’s of course, we’re talking about the parishioners. That sensitivity has to be applied in the way that carries through what the ultimate proposal is.”

Anglican, United and other churches with an historic presence in downtown Toronto have been players in the real estate market for some time because they are willing to shut down parishes and sell off both the land and the buildings. 

But Toronto’s Catholic Church is hanging on to all of its parishes.

“I can’t imagine us closing a church because now the land is so valuable,” Milway said. “The only reason we would close a church is if it’s just not happening — like, there’s nothing there.”

From 1990 to 2007, Cardinal Aloysius Ambrozic took great pride in building churches and never closing them. Collins has carried on the tradition with four new suburban parishes currently working their way to new buildings.

Many old downtown parishes don’t generate enough money to cover the ever-increasing maintenance costs.

“We’ve got churches downtown that are struggling,” Milway said. “You know, if we had a financial crisis in the diocese we would certainly be looking more seriously at those churches. But right now, from the spiritual side of the house, they want to keep the parishes going.”

The ever increasing population downtown is an opportunity for the Church to reach new people.

Wager is certainly aware the St. Monica’s deal puts his company in a very different position than most condo developers.

“We have to first of all embrace the fact that we are building a church,” he said. “We have to do it in a way that promotes design excellence, promotes the identity of the site for the archdiocese and for St. Monica’s parish.”

Getting Toronto’s most prominent architectural firm, KPMB Architects, on board was Wager’s first step.

“Design excellence means more than just a good-looking building from the outside,” he said. “It’s about ensuring that function is at the forefront.”

The condo industry with its massive, pricey towers isn’t necessarily the enemy of community, in Wager’s mind. 

“We have to think of the ways in which we can address some of the constraints of living in an urban centre in the 21st century,” he said. “Most major cities today have affordability issues, where income levels don’t support the cost of acquiring real estate, where we’re building a lot of density around certain notes. Is that density supported by the right type of infrastructure, with the right type of social programming, with the right type of design in terms of the unit mix and size of units that is conducive and reflective of the actual population of the city?”

The hope is the St. Monica’s development can be a positive answer to those questions.

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