Could developing large parking lots help suburban churches fund improvements? Grenfell Architecture designed this plan to help a parish create a more beautiful church using solid New Urbanist principles and traditional Virginia architecture.

The church occupies typically sprawling suburban lot, surrounded by seas of asphalt and low-rise buildings. However, while I was working at Grenfell Architecture, we tried to look at the project in a radical way. We came up with a plan to fix the disorganized sprawl of parking lots and low-rise buildings to create a new neighborhood and to truly make this church the center of a community.

The primary focus was to design a new church that better reflected the liturgical reforms of the past few years within the Catholic church. Since many parishes have only limited resources, we explored how a phased development could help turn this parish from asphalt-dominated auto-centric sprawl into to a walkable mixed-use neighborhood.

Both parishioners and priests alike have given this plan almost universally positive reviews. The pastor of this church has seen the plans and is amenable to the idea, but it does not represent any actual plans to construct this project.

1. This is the current site condition. The area is disorganized and chaotic, dominated by parking. There is little in terms of good outdoor space, and the buildings do not create any ensemble in any way.

2. The first step is to create a system of streets. This begins to organize the area into a block structure. The streets are designed for on-street parking, amazingly providing an equal number of parking spots diffused about the site.

Note too that the connections allow for this neighborhood to become a center for adjoining neighborhoods.

3. Now that there’s enough parking, the large parking lot facing the street can become a row of commercial shops with apartments above. The corner would be anchored by a neighborhood-size grocery store, and other small shops such as florists, coffee shops, or service businesses could occupy the rest. The apartments above see their first residents in anywhere from 10 to 20 apartments. These apartments would be ideal for elderly or younger couples who might not be able to afford larger homes.

4. The first set of 20 townhouses are built upon empty parking lots. Alleys behind the townhouses provide access to one- or two-car garages. These are geared towards families with children who might attend the local school.

5. After selling or leasing properties, the parish would now be able to afford to build a new three-story school. The school would contain the same area for classes, but having a taller profile provides a more compact footprint.

Up to this point, the only demolition that has occurred was to remove parking lots. Already the campus has been improved tremendously.

6. Now having built a new school, the old school could come down, allowing for the construction of 28 new townhouses and another small section of commercial storefronts and apartments. The townhouses each feature the same rear-facing garages and small yards behind.

7. Now the school could complete the reconstruction with a rear wing containing a gymnasium. This would create a pleasant interior courtyard. The courtyard also allows for light to reach all classrooms of the school.

8. Having completed all of the residential components, the parish could now use the funding from the residential sales and commercial rents to help build a new church. The new church here might incorporate a small historic chapel as part of the complex of the church, sacristy and rectory for the parish. The existing rectory would be removed, but the pastor could reside in an apartment or one of the townhomes while the new rectory is being built.

9. Now that the parish has a new church and chapel, the old church is demolished to complete the plan. A new set of storefront buildings would create an orderly town square. Stores, coffee shops, and both school and church functions on the green would activate the square.

Between this commercial block a parking lot would be created to serve the commercial as well as the apartments built above. Using the topography, a parking structure could also be built behind, doubling the parking.

However, since this neighborhood center would be home to almost 75 families, the community would hopefully not need so much parking. The families would be close to school, church and shopping, as well as possibly work. A local bus line could running to Metro along the main road. would encourage less auto use by residents.

Having the church as the center of the community makes it not just a place where people go on Sundays, but a visible and active part of their lives, giving residents something shared that brings them together as a real community. This principle is easily applied to followers of any faith, allowing for their own faith to be shared by their neighbors, and to provide visible witness to neighbors as well.