The reallocation of former churches in Eindhoven is extremely difficult. It is expensive, takes a long time and the parties involved do not always come to an agreement. “The municipality needs to take more of a lead”.
What to do with an empty church? It is a question that is becoming increasingly urgent, now that more and more religious buildings are becoming vacant due to the ongoing secularisation. According to the Rijksdienst Cultureel Erfgoed (cultural heritage agency), a quarter of the churches in the Netherlands are no longer in use as churches.
Colliers expects that by 2030, one in three churches will be vacant. This is also true in Eindhoven, according to research by Studio040. Only half of the Catholic churches are still in use as a church. Half of the closed churches have been empty for years.
Buy a church?
At first sight, the easiest option seems to be to simply sell a church. For a relatively cheap price, you can buy one in Stadskanaal in Groningen (€285,000 for 443 square metres). For a larger one in Sluiskil in Zeeland (1,000 square metres), you can knock off a good €4.7 million. Closer to home, according to Funda in business, there are two churches in Veldhoven for rent, for €3,225 and €5,360 per month respectively.
Yet reallocation through sale usually takes years, it turns out in Eindhoven. The St. Michaël church in Gestel was withdrawn from worship in 2004 and sold. Then it stood empty for years, so that squatters took up residence there. Flats were only built in it more than 15 years later.
Or take the Don Bosco church, which the parish sold to a real estate company in 2006. Since 2010, there have been plans for housing, which only got off the ground in 2019. A similar situation applies to the Fatima Church in the Stratum district, which was sold by the parish back in 2003. It was not until 2020 that the housing plans were finalised.
Handing in the key
And then, of course, there is the Steentjeskerk in Strijp, which has been the subject of wrangling for years. The church was already closed for worship in 1971 and in 1977 it was added to the list of municipal monuments, so that it would not be demolished. From 1983 to 2012, the church housed Museum Kempenland, which had to close because it was no longer receiving a subsidy.
In 2013, the municipality signed a provisional purchase agreement with tile trader Harrie Kolen. He was given the church on loan and was allowed to buy it if he presented a viable plan for its reuse, which took into account its monument status. In the end, tensions between the municipality and the entrepreneur were so high that in October 2021 the judge ordered Koolen to return the key of the church to the municipality.
According to Nico van Dongen, board member of the parish St. Joris of Eindhoven-Zuid, these examples immediately show why selling religious heritage to commercial parties is not always a good idea. The reallocation can take a long time and the municipality and parish run the risk of losing their grip on the plans of the new owner.
But reallocation via a lease construction with the parish is also difficult. First, future tenants must submit their plans to the parish. That plan must also fit within the municipality’s zoning plan. If the church is a national monument, there are strict requirements for the adjustments that a tenant (or buyer) may make to the building. Overdue maintenance and heating costs also put a considerable strain on the budget.
According to Stephan van der Horst, chairman of the Van Abbe Foundation’s religious heritage working group, a reallocation is a success if the plans have been communicated openly. The input of heritage foundations and local residents must also have been valued. Moreover, the entire process must be as transparent as possible for outsiders.
Van der Horst believes it is particularly important for churches to remain recognisable from the outside when they are reused. This means that no (high) buildings may be erected on a church square and that the church tower must be preserved. “Adaptations of doors or windows can be acceptable, as long as they fit in with the appearance of the church. If a church is a monument, changes to the inside should be reversible as much as possible”.
In order to safeguard the continuity of the reallocation of religious heritage, municipalities are advised to draw up a church vision. Such a document contains the important starting points and direction that a municipality sees for empty churches. Eindhoven does not have such a vision.
Empty churches for housing
Although he endorses the importance of housing development as a reallocation, Van der Horst believes that the church’s atmosphere should be maintained as much as possible. The adjustments made to the flats in the former Don Bosco and Fatima churches actually go too far for him. “The atmosphere of the church can be destroyed by a roof terrace. When the monastery on Poeijersstraat was rebuilt, this was taken into account better”.
The municipality recognises that the demand for housing is so great that housing in vacant properties is certainly important. This certainly applies to churches, which are often already located in residential areas. “However, these are costly transformations and relatively expensive to maintain”, the spokesperson says. “The need for affordable housing is more difficult to realise in church buildings”.
In the end, reallocation creates dilemmas for all concerned. The parish would like a sustainable source of income from renting out the church, which in the long run is more lucrative than a one-off sale. A future tenant must exploit the building in such a way that it is profitable. This sometimes conflicts with the social function in the zoning plan of the municipality, which also supervises the possible monument status of a church.
Moreover, local residents are not always keen on new activities in the neighbourhood, as is the case with the Heilige Hartkerk on Ploegstraat. This drives up the costs of re-use. The church is deteriorating and the maintenance costs are rising, making it more and more difficult to establish a business model. This only perpetuates the stalemate.
Translated by: Bob