Jean Kromm is on the Futures Committee that began looking at redeveloping the First United Church site five years ago. (Tracy Holmes photo)

Redevelopment plans for White Rock’s First United unveiled

Church neighbours given preview

Redevelopment of White Rock’s First United Church site is expected to take a big step forward this month, with a formal application to the City of White Rock.

Jean Kromm, a member of the church’s futures committee that began looking at redeveloping the site five years ago, said this week that plans for the 15385 Semiahmoo Ave. property are expected to be submitted to the city by the end of this month.

“It’s been five years and we’ve just been going step-by-step and waiting patiently,” Kromm told Peace Arch News. “We’re quite excited about the result.”

While Kromm said the developer isn’t prepared to share the designs with the general public, as they are still being tweaked, neighbours of the church on Sunday – during an invitation-only open house – perused sketches of a proposed four-storey facility. They showed a three-level care home on the Buena Vista Avenue side and a one-level church fronting Semiahmoo Avenue, Kromm said.

The care-home component was first confirmed to PAN early last month, described as a “memory-care facility.”

Kromm said Wednesday it will include fewer than 100 units and be owned and operated by Origin Active Lifestyle Communities.

While Origin – which currently has five other retirement-facility sites in Canada, as well as one in Europe – is not faith-based, “we felt really strongly when they presented their proposal (that) they were very much in keeping with the values of the church; the care they’ll be providing,” Kromm said.

The church itself will look dramatically different. Built in 1957, it currently boasts a large sanctuary with vaulted ceilings and pews that have seated hundreds for all manner of events; from church and Remembrance Day services to all-candidates meetings and concerts.

The new facility – to be located on the site of the current parking lot – will have a multi-purpose space able to accommodate church services, its extreme-weather shelter and various user groups. Concerts and the like, however, while “wonderful,” are “not our mission,” Kromm said.

The new building also won’t have a steeple, but the architecture will ensure “a very obvious church presence.”

“You’ll know there’s a church on the site, but it won’t be… the way it is now.”

Kromm acknowledged not everyone in the congregation is supportive of plans to redevelop, but said the majority are.

“Every major decision has been a congregational decision,” she said. “There’s always been a small group of people who have not been happy. And that’s democracy. Very few people seem to be opposed, within the congregation.”

The multi-million-dollar project was initially hoped to include an affordable-housing component, however, Kromm said that was rejected by the developer as not viable.

Discussions around the redevelopment were spurred by concerns with its long-term financial sustainability, and Kromm reiterated that times were getting tough – the building itself is “tired,” and needs more and more maintenance, and its space, the sanctuary in particular, is under-utilized.

“We knew if we kept going at the rate we were going, we were going to run out of money.”

Under the plan that is unfolding now, First United will not pay for the cost of development until “after the dust settles,” Kromm said.

Up to this point, the provincial church’s property resource team “has been our backup.”

According to information online, the team works with congregations “to re-purpose property assets into financial assets to serve new forms of congregational life.”

First United – soon to be known as Peninsula United Church – will continue to operate in its existing space through this December, Kromm said.

She remains hopeful that user groups which have come to rely on the space for meetings and other events will be able to find new homes by then; and, that temporary space to continue church outreach efforts such as its community dinners and the extreme-weather shelter will be identified.

She said one thing remains certain: the church is here to stay.

“That is our intention, to be here,” Kromm said.

“We’re not leaving this site. We feel that the work this church does out of this site is really important to the community.”