Churches, Parking, and Change

Whether it’s the suburbs or the city, I’ve never lived in a place where there haven’t been arguments about church parking. Many churches, at limited times, need a lot of parking, and that parking is often found on the street, clogging up traffic and taking up parking. In cities, there’s an added complication: street parking can interfere with biking lanes.

In D.C., this conflict between church parking and bicycle lanes has flared up in Shaw. As is often the case, the argument doesn’t have much to do with the actual issue at hand, but is, in part, a surrogate for a whole set of issues surrounding the changes in D.C. There are some good summary articles here, here, and here, but what I want to focus on is how churches (which will stand in for ‘houses of worship’) are a real problem for urban (and suburban) planning.

Consider a retail store front. As long as the economy doesn’t collapse, the stores can change quite easily. A barbershop can become a clothing boutique (or vice versa), with only some minor changes. Ditto restaurant spaces. But what do you do with a church that packs up and leaves. While some churches have been converted to condos (Boston has several such converted churches), the space in these buildings really isn’t conducive to a lot of commercial activities. And there is a tradition of synagogues and Black churches selling each other their buildings as their neighborhoods changed.

But what happens when your congregants move away? That’s the problem for many of the churches in Shaw. As a result of ‘black flight’ in the 1970s and 1980s, followed by white gentrification, these congregations’ members have moved elsewhere–that is, they now drive to church. To make things worse, the neighboorhood has more residents than it did in 1980, which means more cars in the neighborhood. Churches don’t really adapt to new neighborhoods (one limited exception has been ‘European’ Catholic churches which have become ‘Latino’ churches). Instead, they often become more and more divorced from their neighbors, especially in racially-divided communities (where churches also breakdown along racial lines). As a result, the churches feel very threatened, while the new residents see the church as incongruous with ‘their’ neighborhood.

Leaving aside how (or if) bike lanes should be instituted, this is a problem cities and suburbs will both have to confront.

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