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2018-02-21 / Featured / Real Estate

A church in Bon Air seeks help repurposing school property

BY JIM McCONNELL STAFF WRITER


Jeunee Godsey, rector of St. Michael’s Episcopal Church, says the church sought expert advice for what to do with its soon-to-be vacant school buildings. 
JAMES HASKINS Jeunee Godsey, rector of St. Michael’s Episcopal Church, says the church sought expert advice for what to do with its soon-to-be vacant school buildings. JAMES HASKINS What is a school without students? That’s a question some Bon Air church leaders are asking in a very literal sense. And a group of far-flung real estate consultants have volunteered to help answer it.

St. Michael’s Episcopal Church opened an elementary school on its Quaker Road property in 1957 as part of its outreach mission to the Bon Air community.

More than 60 years later, church leaders have enlisted the aid of a global real estate consulting organization to help them decide what to do with the land and buildings once the school is gone. That’s expected to happen by the start of the 2018-19 school year, when St. Michael’s Episcopal School reunites its lower and middle schools at its 70-acre Hobby Hill Road campus. The private K-8 school has operated on two sites (separated by about three miles) since it opened a new middle school facility in 2008, but always with the intention of bringing its student population back together.

Construction began last August on a 25,000-square-foot building at the Hobby Hill Road campus that will have classrooms for students in kindergarten through fifth grade.

The school “has been growing and really flourished, and so we’re happy to see them be able to build a new lower school on their new campus,” said Jeunee Godsey, rector of St. Michael’s Episcopal Church.

“That also gives us the opportunity and challenge to figure out what we do with our space. How is the church going to use the space that was previously occupied by the school? And in a larger context, what does that mean as we look to our own future vision and mission?”

To help answer those questions and others, St. Michael’s is working with The Counselors of Real Estate, an organization that provides pro bono real estate advisory services to churches and other nonprofit groups in 20 different countries.

Founded in 1953 as The American Society of Real Estate Counselors, CRE’s Consulting Corps comprises 1,100 volunteer members with expertise in a wide range of real estate specialties.

While CRE clients pay an administrative fee and cover expenses (travel, lodging and meals) for team members assigned to their case, there is no charge for professional services that would otherwise cost thousands of dollars.

“We’re all very fortunate people, and we know that out there in the world are clients who cannot afford good real estate advisory services,” said John Leary, a member of the Consulting Corps who lives in New Haven, Connecticut. “One of our goals is to give back in some way.”

Leary and four others – David Baird, Casey Kemper, Timothy Lowe and William Quinlivan – with professional experience relevant to St. Michael’s needs traveled to Chesterfield earlier this month for a five-day site visit.

They came from all over the country. Lowe lives in Los Angeles, while Quinlivan and Kemper are based in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and New York City, respectively. Baird, who works in Cushman and Wakefield’s Baltimore office, had the shortest trip.

All five men are still working full-time in the real estate industry, Leary said, but they’re at a point in their careers where “we can pretty well control our calendars.” Their objective was to devise a strategy for the future use of the school facilities while maintaining the church’s relevance within the surrounding neighborhood.

“This parish is part of what makes Bon Air what it is. There’s an inter-relationship that can’t be separated,” Baird said.

By the time team members arrived on site, they already had reviewed a series of documents submitted by St. Michael’s, which Leary called “perhaps the best-prepared client the Consulting Corps has ever had.”

During their five-day visit, the consultants toured the property and met with church and school leaders, parishioners and community members. They reviewed local land-use ordinances with county staff. They also talked to business leaders and CRE members familiar with the Richmond region to gain a better sense of the real estate market.

They created a SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats) analysis and considered future facility uses that are financially feasible and advance the church’s mission.

St. Michael’s location is “obviously a strength,” Baird noted.

“You can’t reproduce historic charm,” he said. “We try, believe me, but there are things that can’t be remanufactured. It’s a very desirable neighborhood. And having 8 to 12 acres is a huge plus. You don’t find that very often in a semi-urban environment.”

The consultants presented their initial assessment and recommendations to a group of about 50 people on the last day of their visit. They’re expected to submit a more detailed report next month.

Godsey agreed with Baird’s contention that whatever St. Michael’s decides to do with the former school property, it must be “compatible” with the character of Bon Air.

“We’re not just looking at land and buildings,” she added. “We’ve been intentional about reaching out to the community. We want to hear from our neighbors.” ¦

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