Saturday, July 24, 2010

Churches' mall deals in the clear

New Creation and City Harvest don't flout new rules but will have to abide by usage curbs: URA

THE commercial investments of New Creation Church and City Harvest Church do not infringe the Urban Redevelopment Authority's (URA) new guidelines, it has been clarified. But plans for the one-north hub and Suntec Convention Centre will have to comply with restrictions on the use of commercial space for worship, prayer and preaching.

Guidelines made public on Tuesday stated that commercial premises 'cannot be owned by or exclusively leased to religious organisations', raising questions over City Harvest's minority stake in Suntec Singapore and plans to spend $310 million on a move there next year, as well as New Creation Church's joint venture via business arm Rock Productions with CapitaMalls Asia, to build a $1 billion lifestyle hub at one-north.

In response to a BT query, URA clarified that religious groups whose business units own commercial property do not contravene the guidelines, meant to provide clarity and keep commercial space secular.

These guidelines, the URA spokesman said, concern the limited and non-exclusive use of auditoriums, function halls, convention halls and cinemas within commercial and hotel developments for religious activities. 'It is in this context that such premises cannot be owned by, or exclusively leased to, religious organisations,' the spokesman said.

'The ownership of these premises can, however, be held by commercial entities of the religious organisations as these commercial entities also conduct other secular events at these premises,' URA added. For instance, New Creation's Rock Productions, which leases the Rock Auditorium in Suntec City from Suntec Reit, rents it out for events and meetings on weekdays.

However, both the one-north complex and Suntec Convention Centre are commercial developments, so the churches' plans to shift worship services there in future will have to comply with the new guidelines.

Each religious entity can use up to 10,000 square metres of a commercial development's space at any one time, for up to two days a week, while each commercial landlord cannot rent out more than 20,000 sq m or 20 per cent of a development's gross floor area, whichever is smaller.

Current leases to religious organisations at Suntec fall within these limits. New Creation's weekend services use The Rock Auditorium, which has a gross floor area of about 3,500 sq m, and a few other cinema halls and rooms.

Things are not as clear at the Singapore Expo, which reserved comment when contacted about compliance with the new guidelines. Currently, City Harvest rents Hall 8 (10,000 sq m) while Faith Community Baptist Church (FCBC) rents the Max Pavilion and Hall 9 (10,000 sq m each). The smaller Bethesda Community Church rents halls covering 844 sq m. The total floor space leased by these churches thus appears to exceed the 20,000 sq m limit.

But some in the property line point out that the guidelines only govern space used for religious activities - namely worship, prayer and preaching - and that the Expo's halls are easily partitioned. FCBC also said that Hall 9 is used largely as a foyer and holding area for the congregation before and after services.

In any case, URA said on Tuesday that it will 'exercise flexibility to allow some religious organisations sufficient time to meet the guidelines' so as to 'minimise disruption to their current activities'.

Source: Business Times, 24 Jul 2010

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