Lutherans looking to build a skyscraper

PHOTO: OÜ Kiriku Varahaldus

Estonian Evangelical Lutheran Church (EELK), soon to complete a top exclusive real estate development in Kentmanni St, Tallinn, is reaching ever higher: next in line would be a skyscraper in heart of Tallinn.

In May, the church filed papers to city government to launch detailed plan of a block, in the centre of which towers a residential and office building no less that 33 stories high. If all goes according to plan, the 130 metre sail-shaped house next to Hotel Olümpia will be the tallest in city centre.

According to Mati Maanas, CEO to the church asset manager OÜ Kiriku Varahaldus, development activities are based on a ten-years-old decision no longer to sell the best lots returned to Lutherans by ownership reform for immediate gain – rather, they’d try and make long-term returns. The Lennuki St 22 lot, at that, is in a spot so hot that to build a low building would not make sense.

The 1,000 square metre property at Lennuki 22 / Maakri 29 came back to church hands in the mid-1990ies. At the moment, it features a three storey limestone office building earning the clerics rent money. 

In the depths of recession, in 2008, the neighbouring lot of 600 m2 went to the construction company Fund Ehitus as purchased from bankruptcy. Now, church and builder are planning, hand in hand, to merge the land by detail plan and have a skyscraper erected thereon.

«We have the draft plans ready, the city has had a look and the verdict was positive. We have reason to believe there will be full forward, and successfully so for Tallinn,» said Mr Maanas. He did stress, however, that all planning stages are still ahead of them and a lot may change. With the smoothest of runs, building the house might commence in four-five years’ time only. 

The church did try the skyscraper in 2005 and 2008, but hit resistance by cultural goods agency as the church and owners of neighbouring lots wanted to join 3,000 square meters of land and demolish a historic wooden house which was in the way. The new plan would let the monument be, and the high-rise with four underground parking floors would sit on an area smaller by half.

Mr Maanas said the building will contain apartments and offices, as best answering the demand of the market. Part of the office space would belong to EELK to make rental money. To build, a bank loan would indeed be needed, but the church would not lay its assets on the line. «[We are] absolutely unwilling to risk church money. We will have to see to a solution so the risk would be minimal,» said Mr Maanas.

As assured by Argo Kerner, skyscraper project manager in Fund Ehitus, the plan is a solid one. «At the moment, we are going by this being an office and residential building, 50:50. But should an entrepreneur appear wanting it to be a hotel, we may do a total office building. We would be ready to act at once,» promised Mr Kerner.

According to Tallinn head architect Endrik Mänd, he approves the skyscraper plan as the block was indeed intended to have a high-rise. The right granted to church and Fund Ehitus, and the scope of it, is now up to agreements by these two and surrounding property owners. Any agreement would need city government and council green light.

«Planning a high-rise, the first priority is to make sure the city skyline – viewing from the sea – a appears compact, that the Old Town and the bunch of new buildings be clearly distinguished. Also, the pedestrian space must be comfortable. With these conditions met, the place should be okay for high-rises,» suggested Mr Mänd.

Not limited to the church, Estonian Business Schoo­l situated behind Radisson hotel has also asked for high-rise permission in the neighbourhood. According to the chief architect, room for three of four high-rises more might be found between Maakri, Lennuki and Kuke streets. Ideally, the traffic would not be a nightmare as the skyscrapers would have to link their underground parking lots.

«Maakri St is planned to be for pedestrians. It could maintain some few entries into underground parking lots, but we do not have the precise solution yet,» said Mr Mänd.

Tallinn has set 130 metre ceiling on city centre buildings, but the Lutheran skyscraper would definitely dwarf the 117-metre SwissÔtel. Even so, Mr Mänd notes it would not be Tallinn’s highest – a permit having been issued to build a 210-metre 60-storey giant next to Paljassaare Harbour.

One may think EELK to be a whale of a real estate developer. Not so, notes Mr Maanas: the church is rather low profile at it. Verily, the Kentmanni St 6 has flats on sale for €5,000 per m2, but the church has little to do with that.

According to Mr Maanas, the lot indeed used to be church property, but as early as in 2003 the agreed with Merko Ehitus that EELK would not pour a penny in the building. In return, a Merko subsidiary got bulk of the land and house. In the million-€-building, church now only owns the lower two floor offices – to be rented out for long-term gain. In last annual report for 2013, Kiriku Varahaldus foresaw earnings of €300,000 a year.

EELK has 164 congregations in Estonia, each owning real estate. Most possess church buildings, many have extras like historic buildings, forests, farm and pastureland. A large part of this isn’t used by the church; at the moment, Kiriku Varahaldus is selling 11 lots.

According to Urmas Viilma, chancellor of EELK Consistory, Kiriku Varahaldus (Real Estate Bureau of the EELK) is administrating real estate as prescribed by the church. Everything is based on the strategy laid down by church assembly (the kirikukogu), and just a part of real estate is given to the company disposal. As seen in annual reports, during this past decade Kiriku Varahaldus has followed the Protestant creed: a small part of the money is spent, lion’s share is re-invested.

«So far, the church has not drawn dividends. However, Kiriku Varahaldus administers church real estate and covers its expenses out of rent money,» described Mr Viilma. On top of that, Kiriku Varahaldus is paying the church back long-term debt with interests thereof – thus far used by the later for clergy wages, children and youth work, and missions.