While our interest in the faith has been waning for decades, monasteries and churches are simultaneously viewed with greater interest. Not so much for the salvation of our souls, but because of their excellent position. Real estate developers feel the opportunities, but they also face obstacles. Christianity is not for sale.
Turnhout Center has long been home to the Congregation of the Minor Brothers, a beggar Franciscan sect that settled there in the mid-17th century to dedicate their lives to God. But as time passed and interest in the pious lifestyle faded, the Patersstraat parents disappeared. At the end of the eighties they left permanently and sold the monastery.
Today there is activity again in and around Paterspand. The former monastery will get a modern update soon. Where the fathers used to pray, people will soon live, work and rest.
Kempen’s religious real estate project in Triginta’s portfolio ended last year. Ghent investor and developer was founded in 2018 by Geert Wellens. He began his career in the late 1980s as a real estate journalist for Trends magazine and later co-founded asset manager Econopolis with Geert Noels. Wellens has been toying with the idea of creating a real estate company with a social focus for some time. As director of several Catholic care institutions, he knows the ecclesiastical world. He asserts: “I do this out of social commitment, not religious conviction.”
Triginta has three activities: healthcare real estate, public-private partnerships (schools, swimming pools…) and reuse of religious sites. Ambitions are high and activities are also being expanded through heritage projects, school building and a flexible rental model. Within three years, Triginta created a portfolio of 220 million euros. The fund recently acquired the first of three sponsorship projects in southern Holland. In addition to international expansion, Wallonia is also on the wishlist. For this expansion, Triginta wants to “double” its capital of 60 million euros in the coming months. It also relies on 47 family investors, including Mark Cook (see inset). “By the end of this year the capital operation should be completed.”
6% return to Coucke and co.
Triginta has so far achieved its target net return of at least 6 percent. “The goal of our family of 47 contributors is to do things that are socially relevant with a strong return,” says founder Gert Willens. “But these families don’t need to invest again tomorrow.” Among them are several well-known names: Urbain Vandeurzen (LMS), Marc Coucke (Omega Pharma), Vandersanden (brick) families, Mark Leysen (known from Vanbreda), Vanderschelden (furniture manufacturer Perfecta), Versele (animal feed ) and Leuven investor Stan Bakers.
- It was founded by former journalist Geert Wellens in 2018.
- Fund for the redevelopment and repurposing of religious real estate, healthcare real estate, and public-private partnerships.
- Active in 22 projects, representing a portfolio of 220 million euros and a pipeline of 200,000 square meters.
- 15 employees.
Especially the reallocation of religious sites, at the moment limited to six projects, appeals to the imagination. In the absence of religious estate agents, Trigenta has to herself contact the friars and parishes. “It’s not easy to get in there,” says CEO Jan Lambertine, who learned the trade from Antwerp project developer Eric de Vochs (IRET). The community has no real estate. The chief devotee is often interested in this. Sometimes lay people with real estate experience are already hired.
With churches emptying, many churches are struggling with their financial health. Their wealth is in real estate. They want to make this liquid.
Only in recent years have the communities been open to ambitious redevelopment. “In the 1950s, they were the backbone of society,” says Lambertine. “But with churches emptied and people not being baptized anymore, many churches are struggling with their financial health. Their wealth is in real estate. They want to make that liquid, but with added social value.”
One crucial talent for Trigenta: patience. The name refers to the Latin number 30 or the period during which real estate is usually depreciated. “Collectives don’t think short term,” Lambertine says. They feel responsible for the temporary. If you tell them you want to buy their property by summer, they will give up. Other developers aim to get their money back within five years. We have been engaged in prospecting alone for two years. We must believe and trust.
An important argument for the reluctant groups is that Triginta is not only redeveloping religious sites, but also prefers to keep buildings in its portfolio. This can be done on full ownership, through a long lease or building lease that provides the demand with a monthly rental income.
Trigenta sees huge real estate potential in Belgian religious sites. According to the developer, there are 8000 religious sites in Belgium, mainly located in central cities. Find green spaces in cities on Google Earth. Lambertine says these are almost always monasteries. “Mechelen, Bruges, and Leuven have grown up around religious estates,” Willens adds. “Some city centers are still a quarter in the hands of religious organizations.”
While Triginta’s focus on religious real estate may be unique, the concern itself is not. Churches and monasteries are empty, but often in excellent locations, which really catches the eye of property developers. “Real estate players have been exploiting properties owned by private institutions, such as monasteries or schools for some time,” says Sven Stirken, an architect and professor of architectural history at KU Leuven. “There’s a lot of movement in it.”
Monasteries and monasteries are not the only options that could theoretically be considered for development. Parish churches are also less used and always have a nice location in town or village centers. But a holy house is not the same. While the development of convents, cloisters, or chapels does not elicit little resistance, it is more sensitive with churches.
However, the government is requesting a change of purpose. Not surprisingly, millions of euros of government funds – 127 million last year – have flowed into the upkeep of churches that are constantly empty. Flanders has been leading the way for several years now. A purpose-built project office assists cities, municipalities and church communities with concrete files. The Flemish Cities Knowledge Center also tries to provide inspiration and experience. This pays off, with dozens of files under discussion.
Because in practice, many of these files appear to be lost due to ecclesiastical reluctance, Flemish Heritage Minister Matthias Debendaele (N-VA) launched the Future-Oriented Parish Churches Program last week, an action plan to speed up the change of purpose of underutilized spaces. of worship.
In an ideal world, such a small or unused church would again gain a community function, whether or not it was an addition to the original spiritual function—the so-called “secondary destination” in technical terms. There are examples of libraries, museums, school functions, youth centers, and markets.
But the government is equally open to reuse of items by private owners or for commercial reuse. In Kruibeke and Boom the old churches were converted into a loft. In Mechelen, the Patershof has become a luxury hotel. And in Ypres you can play sports in the church. Despite loud protests, the famous Saint Anne Church in Ghent will soon become Delhaize. Especially those kinds of projects – which may be of interest to developers – deter the Church.
In a racy opinion piece in De Standaard, in response to Dependael’s plan, Antwerp Bishop Johann Bony insisted that “Christianity is not for sale.” It seems that “the church deserves a respected place and has an important meaning in our society.” The motto of “pettyness outshines” cannot become.
You can’t turn every church into a concert hall.
“I can follow him on that,” says Dirk Laporte, professor of heritage studies at the University of Antwerp who specializes in changing purposes. The church has always played an important role in society. There people were baptized, married there, and were buried there. This has symbolic value, even for those who aren’t as religious as me. You don’t just erase it. So I do not support the private or commercial interpretation of the churches. The church must be able to maintain its community function, even if no more Mass is celebrated.
When the church is reoriented, Laporte also advocates respect for the building’s space. “Putting the floors in it, as the luxury hotel in Patershof in Mechelen, is amazing, but it robs the building of its value,” says Laporte. This destination also conflicts with other conditions set by Laporte for a good redevelopment: the interventions must be reversible and the space must remain publicly accessible.
These terms conflict with the needs of real estate developers. So the churches are not economically interesting to Trigenta, Wellins says. In a church, we can often use only 60 percent of the surface. This is difficult to manage, unless the church is very big or if there is a monastery next to it.
On the other hand, other experts are more pragmatic and open to the business path the government seems to want to take with the churches. “There are good arguments to be made to apply the real estate logic,” says Stirkin. “A lot of churches are underutilized and hardly generating any income. It is not financially feasible to continue adjusting that.
Stirkin says he understands the emotional component. Much research has been done on modern churches, which people often either struggled to build or helped lay their foundations themselves. When such a church disappears, it feels like an amputation. Such a church plays a role in building the community, and you cannot deny that. In an ideal world, it gives it a social or cultural function when its purpose is changed. But the simple truth is that we will not succeed in turning them all into concert halls. So you have to be open to other options. Although I also think simple privatization is a bridge too far for the churches that society pays for.
Laporte is a staunch opponent of the demolition of churches. “You don’t demolish a church.” On the other hand, Sterken is in favor of demolishing some churches of negligible heritage value and doing something new on the site. Not to build an apartment building, but to do things in the spirit of reuse. In the Netherlands there are good examples of churches giving way to nurseries or doctors’ practices. They also have a special community function, but you can’t organize them in a church building. So why should you leave that alone? “
Whether abroad – where ramshackle churches with a commercial sense are already more firmly established – will give us a glimpse into our future, we still have to see. As long as opinions are deeply divided and feelings escalate, things can be slow. “It’s good to be slow,” concludes Laporte. “This gives you time to think carefully.”
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