Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Rules for religious use of commercial space

Such premises can't be owned or leased exclusively to religious bodies, guidelines say

(SINGAPORE) The government has clarified the extent to which commercial spaces can be used for religious activities.

The guidelines, which apply with immediate effect, include caps on how often religious activities can be held at commercial venues and how much space they can use in such buildings at any one time.

No more than 20,000 square metres or 20 per cent of any commercial development's gross floor area (whichever is lower) can be considered for religious use. And each religious group can only use up to 10,000 sq m of commercial space at any one time.

Also, commercial premises cannot be used for religious activities for more than two days a week, including the weekend.

Owners of convention centres must also ensure that the religious use of their facilities does not compromise the staging of other events over weekends, the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) and the Ministry of Community Development, Youth and Sports (MCYS) said yesterday.

These premises 'cannot be owned by or exclusively leased to religious organisations' and 'should be available to be rented out for other commercial events such as seminars, conferences and performances', the guidelines said.

Questions had been raised earlier over whether recent investments by the New Creation Church and City Harvest Church (CHC) into commercial spaces constitute a 'change of use' of sites zoned for commercial rather than 'place of worship' use under URA's Master Plan.

New Creation's Rock Productions has a joint venture with CapitaMalls Asia to build a $1 billion lifestyle hub at one-north, which will have retail outlets, a concert hall and a theatre when ready in 2012. New Creation, which intends to hold church services there in future, yesterday said it would not be responding to media yet.

CHC said in March that it would spend $310 million on a minority stake in Suntec Singapore, rent and renovation costs, to move its weekly services from Singapore Expo to the convention centre next year. It told the media earlier that it would not have exclusive use of any area in Suntec.

A CHC spokesman said yesterday that the church is 'liaising with the relevant land owners and studying the implications of the new guidelines', adding that it would abide by these and provide a substantive reply in due time.

URA and MCYS's joint statement said the guidelines are meant to allow flexibility for the limited religious use of commercial premises, while ensuring that their key use and character are not eroded. The idea is to make sure commercial spaces 'remain secular spaces that can be enjoyed by people from all segments of society', it said.

Currently, several groups lease commercial venues for regular religious services.

Singapore Expo leases Hall 8 to CHC and the Max Pavilion and Hall 9 to Faith Community Baptist Church (FCBC) on weekends. Each of these halls is 10,000 sq m in size, according to Singapore Expo's capacity sheet. But FCBC told MediaCorp that it would not be affected by the new guidelines.

Rock Productions, the business arm of New Creation, leases the Rock Auditorium in Suntec City from Suntec REIT. Its Sunday services utilise the Rock Auditorium, which covers less than 3,500 sq m, as well as cinema halls and other overflow rooms in Suntec City.

URA said it receives requests from religious organisations to use commercial space for their activities 'from time to time' and has approved some of these proposals on a case-by-case basis. Now, guidelines are being made known to 'provide greater clarity to religious organisations and building owners on what can and cannot be allowed within commercial developments', the URA spokesman said.

Both Suntec REIT and Suntec Singapore, current landlords of organisations renting for religious use, agreed that the guidelines make clearer the extent to which religious use of commercial spaces is permissible. Suntec Singapore's spokesman added: 'We have provided organisations equal access to our venue for their activities. We will continue to do so in line with the spirit of the guidelines.'

Chandran Nair, deputy general manger of Singex Venues, managing company of Singapore Expo, said: 'We are in full awareness and acceptance of the new guidelines. It is business as usual at Singapore Expo and we will continue to work with the authorities to ensure compliance.'

No records are kept of the total number of religious groups currently renting commercial premises for their activities, but URA said that those doing so on a regular basis are 'advised to submit their proposed use together with the building owner's consent to URA for consideration'.

It added that it is prepared to 'exercise flexibility to allow some religious organisations sufficient time to meet the guidelines, or up to the expiry of their current licence or lease period in order to minimise disruptions to their current activities'.

Other rules laid down yesterday govern the appearance of premises being used for religious activities. No signs, advertisements or posters of the religious events can be displayed, and premises cannot be furnished to look like a worship hall. When not in use by the religious group, the venue should have no religious symbols, icons or paraphernalia too.

URA said that it does not regulate property ownership, but the actual use of premises must adhere to planning and land use zoning intentions regardless of ownership.

Source: Business Times, 21 Jul 2010

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