The Manhattan Institute’s
Center for Rethinking Development
Ideas that shape the city’s planning, housing, and development
A Monthly Newsletter by Julia Vitullo-Martin, MI Senior Fellow

Can New York Save its Houses of Worship?

Julia Vitullo-Martin, June 2006

(©Julia Vitullo-Martin)

Shifting demographics, combined with a long-term decline in mainstream-church attendance, have produced what may be the most serious planning dilemma facing New York in the 21st century: What, if anything, can be done to save the hundreds of houses of worship now vulnerable to demolition?

Nearly every neighborhood in every borough of New York is anchored by a church, synagogue, meeting house, or school. In formulating a zoning code, city planners simply assumed that houses of worship were permanent fixtures. One or two churches or temples might deteriorate and close, but most would remain, secure in their function and place in city life.

Yet the descendants of the 19th century immigrants who built glorious monuments to their religious traditions have dispersed to the suburbs, with hardly a look back at what they left behind. All over the city, historic churches and synagogues stand virtually empty and unused.

DECLINING CONGREGATIONS

Throughout Manhattan, the Bronx, and Staten Island the Archdiocese of New York alone owns over 400 churches, many with schools. Its announcement in March of a preliminary "realignment" plan, under which it would close 8 parishes in New York City, ignited a storm of protest. In addition to the enumerated 8 parishes, the slated demolition of other churches will proceed, including St. Thomas the Apostle in Harlem and St. Brigidís on the Lower East Side.

(©Julia Vitullo-Martin)

After decades in the doldrums, Harlem and the Lower East Side are hot neighborhoods. From the point of view of those trying to save the churches, this is both good and bad. It's bad because it means that market-value offers for the property can be high enough to trump all other considerations. But itís good, because an astute, knowledgeable developer can often figure out a way to save the church while developing adjacent property.

This is usually done by combining a transfer of development rights with other incentives to build affordable housing. St. Theresa's, on the Lower East Side, saved its 1842 Gothic church by selling a parking lot and air rights for $2.5 million in 1998 to the Hudson Companies, a developer that built an attractive 83-unit, market-rate apartment building. St. Brigidís parishioners and neighbors were stymied in proposing a similar deal by the refusal of the Archdiocese to consider any alternate approaches.

Harlem developer Ken Haron, president of Artimus Construction, had made a similar offer to the Archdiocese last year, in the hope of saving St. Thomas the Apostle, a huge and beautiful Harlem church that had been shut down and padlocked by the Archdiocese in 2003. As the developer of the 64-unit Rosa Parks Condominiums across St. Nicholas Avenue, Haron was approached by neighborhood residents and the New York Landmarks Conservancy, proposing that they work together. After calculating that the market value of the Archdiocesan holdings—the full square footage, the air rights, and everything else—came to $9 million, Haron's group offered the Archdiocese $7.2 million. They convinced the city's Department of Housing Preservation and Development to give them an adjacent lot that would allow them to build a 90-unit mixed-income development. "The proposal was to give the church $2 million just to start its renovation, while the eventual income would come from the housing development," said Haron. The Archdiocese rejected the offer, saying they had their own plans for the property. Meanwhile, St. Thomas remains padlocked, unheated, and unprotected against the weather and vandalism.

ACTIVIST NEIGHBORS

While the Archdiocese is the largest religious property owner in New York, its situation is not the most dire. The Presbytery of New York City, which owns 98 churches, serves only 18,000 Presbyterians. Such a small number of congregants cannot support so many facilities. Some churches will have to be closed, and perhaps sold—but to whom, and for what purposes?

(©Thomas Vitullo-Martin)

Take the West Park Presbyterian Church, located on the corner of Amsterdam Avenue and 86th Street on the Upper West Side. Finished in 1884, the five-story red sandstone church is "one of the finest Romanesque sanctuaries in Manhattan," writes David Dunlap in From Abyssinian to Zion. But it has been deteriorating for years, with chunks of the soft decorative sandstone periodically tumbling to the ground. Repairs, it is estimated, would cost up to $8 million—an impossible sum for the remaining parishioners, who number fewer than 100. An offer from the Related Companies, one of the largest developers in New York, would have bailed the church out. Related would have demolished the church itself, built a 24-story tower, and given the congregation space for a sanctuary.

Neighborhood residents immediately joined forces with preservationists—Landmark West and the New York Landmarks Conservancy—to raise money to help rebuild the church and to negotiate a more amenable new building. It may work, as was the case with the community group Save Our Universalist Landmark, which brokered a deal to preserve the Universalist Church on 76th Street and Central Park West. In both cases, City Planning's as-of-right high-density zoning has yielded a streetscape of large buildings, softened and made tolerable by the corner presence of lovely low-rise churches.

If a single entity owned New York's 579 synagogues—as the Archdiocese owns as corporation sole most Catholic churches—it would be the largest religious property owner in the city. Instead, the highly diverse synagogues—from Orthodox to Reform—tend to go untracked by planners until disaster strikes, as it did last spring when the extraordinarily beautiful roof of the Lower East Side's First Roumanian-American Congregation collapsed. Despite many last ditch efforts, the synagogue was demolished, after the Department of Buildings ruled it too dangerous to stand.

No one has publicly calculated how many of the city's synagogues are worthy of landmark designation, but Ann-Isabel Friedman, Director of the Sacred Sites Program for the Landmarks Conservancy, notes that Dunlap's Manhattan guide lists over 100 synagogues of architectural interest, of which 13 are landmarked individually or as part of historic districts. Brooklyn has one individually designated synagogue plus five more in historic districts. No synagogue has been individually designated in the other three boroughs, despite their many historic ones.

Not far from First Roumanian's ruins is an extraordinary success. The Eldridge Street Project, a nonprofit and nonsectarian group founded in 1986, restored and maintains the first house of worship built in America by Eastern European Jews. The building, which is open to the public, still maintains a small congregation, which worships every Sabbath. This is the ideal, of course: restoring a building to its preserve its beauty while continuing its use as a house of worship and its role in the life of the neighborhood. (And while the Archdiocese of New York has not participated in any similar venture, the Archdiocese of Chicago helped save its Irish Famine church, Old St. Patrick's, by reinvigorating its activities and recruiting newcomers, to the tune of 3,500 households.)

WHAT’S NEXT

The Bloomberg administration needs to assert its leadership here by establishing a high-level commission of public officials, church leaders, preservationists, and development experts to examine the situation, explore the facts, and recommend some solutions. Otherwise, one after another, historic houses of worship will fall beneath the wrecker's ball, leaving their neighborhoods bereft. At least some of them can be saved. Planning models can be mixed and matched: shrewd development, reinvigorated congregations, public campaigns, preservationist support, etc. As developer Alan Bell said about St. Theresa's resurgence, "They restored their church. Now they're restoring their congregation."

 


June 2006
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New York Landmarks Conservancy
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Archdiocese of New York
American Jewish Committee
Presbytery of New York City
Artimus Construction
Hudson Companies
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PRESERVATION
New York Landmarks Preservation Commission
David Dunlap's From Abyssinian to Zion: A Guide to Manhattan's Houses of Worship
Landmark West
Lower East Side Synagogues
Preservation League of New York State: Seven to Save
Preservation OnLine
The Committee to Save St. Brigid's Church
Eldridge Street Project
Gothamist
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STUDIES
State of New York City's Housing and Neighborhoods 2005
Several Years After, City's Housing Rehabs are still in Good Repair
Closing the Door: Accelerating Losses of New York City Subsidized Housing
Time for a Gut Rehab
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Atlantic Yards: Can it Work for Brooklyn?
P.S. 64 on Lower East Side designated a landmark
Hitting the 9 Million Mark
Zoning Versus Planning in Manhattanville
NYCHA's Plan to Preserve Public Housing
Melting the Iron Triangle
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“This was the question we all asked—Harlem residents, Landmarks Conservancy, Congressman Rangel, everyone else: How could we bring in money to save St. Thomas? We didn't realize that the Archdiocese wanted to demolish the church. So we said we'll use the building next door, the adjacent lot owned by HPD, we'll build higher residential. We offered the Archdiocese $7.2 million, which would have let us preserve the church, while giving it annual upkeep of $120,000 a year. There would have been a new building next to the church of about 90 apartments, 20% affordable to very low income households, 20% at market, and the rest for moderate income. That would have paid for the church.”
Ken Haron, President, Artimus Construction
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