Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Guidelines on use of mall space for religion

Govt outlines limits to the use of commercial complexes

NEW government guidelines have made clear that it is all right for religious organisations to make use of commercial premises for their activities, subject to certain limits.

Christian groups have been using places such as hotel function rooms and convention centres on weekends for a number of years, as reported in the media.

From now, no more than 20,000 sq m of a commercial complex's gross floor area (GFA), or 20 per cent of GFA, whichever is lower, may be used for religious purposes. And such activities may be held for no more than two days a week.

A religious organisation is also limited to using 10,000 sq m, which is equivalent to about 11/2 football fields. This will ensure that a religious organisation does not dominate a particular commercial complex.

In a joint statement, the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) and the Ministry of Community Development, Youth and Sports (MCYS) explained they were prepared to exercise some flexibility and allow commercial premises such as hotels, auditoriums, function halls, convention centres and cinemas to be used in a 'limited, non-exclusive way' by religious groups that hold large gatherings.

This is provided the events do not cause noise, traffic or parking problems. To protect the secular nature of the venues, there must also be no signage or religious symbols, and the interiors should not be furnished to resemble a worship hall when not used by the religious group.

The guidelines take effect immediately and apply to all religions. Religious organisations using commercial space will have to register with the URA.

The clarification of land use rules was received with relief as most churches are currently not at any risk of flouting the rules.

It is understood that the URA discussed the guidelines on Monday with representatives of the bigger megachurches - 33,000-strong City Harvest Church, 10,000-strong Faith Community Baptist Church and 20,000-strong New Creation Church - and their landlords, Singapore Expo and Suntec Singapore.

Currently, Faith Community Baptist Church and City Harvest Church use less than 10,000 sq m atthe Singapore Expo each.

City Harvest Church has also made a controversial $310 million investment to become a co-owner of Suntec Singapore and hold services in a 12,000-seat auditorium there.

Regarding City Harvest's purchase, a URA spokesman told The Straits Times it does not regulate property ownership.

'However, the actual use of the premises must adhere to the planning and land use zoning intentions regardless of the ownership. The contractual agreement between City Harvest and Suntec City is a private matter between the two parties,' he said.

A City Harvest spokesman said: 'We are currently liaising with the relevant land owners and studying the implications of the new guidelines. City Harvest will abide by the new guidelines.'

Ngee Ann Polytechnic real estate lecturer Nicholas Mak saidthe guidelines make sense.

'Rather than let religious organisations slowly take over commercial spaces and make other users feel uncomfortable, the guidelines ensure that members of the public of all religions can use the premises,' he said.

National University of Singapore cultural geographer Lily Kong welcomed the guidelines, saying secular spaces should not be entirely off-limits to religious groups.

'What this new set of guidelines does is to relax the clear compartmentalisation of land use in a cautious and regulated way,' she said.

However, Senior Pastor Lawrence Khong of Faith Community Baptist Church felt that such explicit guidelines could be restrictive and preferred leaving it to the market to 'self-regulate'.

For example, he said, it would be in landlord Singapore Expo's interests to safeguard its commercial character and not lease all its space to religious groups.

For landlord Suntec Singapore, which currently leases space to New Creation Church, the guidelines mean 'business as usual'.

A spokesman said: 'We are in compliance with the guidelines set forth by the authorities.'

New Creation Church declined to comment.

Source: Straits Times, 21 Jul 2010

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