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April 29th, 2004, 03:47 PM
NY Times.

Sacred Space but Earthly Challenges


Published: April 25, 2004

THE beliefs they espouse may be eternal, but the grip that churches and synagogues have on their property can be transitory.

With shrinking memberships and demographic shifts as ethnic groups move out of neighborhoods and others move in, houses of worship can be filled to capacity and financially comfortable in one decade and struggling for survival in the next. In the meantime, they must find ways to finance the repair or renovation of aging buildings. In some cases, life rafts are held out by developers, but at a price: the right to build may entail demolition of the church itself.

Throughout the city and beyond, religious institutions from the expansive Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine and the West-Park Presbyterian Church in Manhattan to the small Bay Ridge United Methodist Church in Brooklyn are grappling with difficult, sometimes wrenching, decisions: to sell off land or buildings, rent space to tenants, merge with other congregations, seek designation as a landmark or resist landmarking.

The Rev. Sandra Moore, pastor of the Bay Ridge church defined the plight of her flock succinctly: "land and property rich, and cash poor."

"Our building holds around 400, but we get maybe 50 to 60 individuals per Sunday, and that is not enough," she said. "We must be creative in our efforts to be good stewards of our property. A lot of times, pastors and congregations sentimentalize their properties and don't use their resources wisely."

She has recruited a historical architect and a fund-raiser to help devise ways to do that, "but in the meantime, we need to take action yesterday," she said. The clock tower of the church, which has shed some of its serpentine stone, will be wrapped in special fabric to keep more stone from falling off and scaffolding will be put up on other parts of the structure. But Pastor Moore said a proper historic renovation would cost more than $3 million.

On a broader scale, the Archdiocese of New York, which encompasses 413 Roman Catholic churches in 10 counties, is conducting a comprehensive survey of its holdings. "As the process progresses, we hope to determine where changes need to be made, and those may well be both in building new churches, expanding existing buildings or closing or merging parishes," said Joseph Zwilling, a spokesman for the archdiocese and a member of the committee doing the investigation.

For the time being, though, Mr. Zwilling said, the study has been delayed because Bishop Timothy A. McDonnell, who was in charge of it, left to become bishop of Springfield, Mass.

Concern about religious structures goes beyond denominational lines. Last June, the New York Landmarks Conservancy convened a meeting of real estate representatives of the Catholic and Episcopal dioceses, the New York Presbytery and consultants and lawyers expert in the field of religious real estate to exchange ideas about how best to deal with buildings that no longer meet the needs of their communities.

"These are some of the most beautiful and important buildings, not just to their congregations but to their neighborhoods and city," said Peg Breen, president of the conservancy. "We would hope that if closings must occur, denominations try to see if someone else could use the building before selling it to developers who will tear them down."

The impetus for that meeting, held under the auspices of the conservancy's Sacred Sites program, was the recognition that there are an inordinate number of underused Presbyterian churches around the city.

Reade H. Ryan Jr., president of the board of the Presbytery of New York City, the governing body for the five boroughs, said the denomination has 100 congregations in the city with 17,000 members, but 15,000 are concentrated in four churches. "We are grappling with the problem of smaller churches," Mr. Ryan said, noting that it is one component of a study of "what God's purpose for the Presbyterian Church is."

West-Park Church
A Neighborhood Gets Involved

If any one church exemplifies the dilemma facing houses of worship with diminishing membership and mounting debt, it is the West-Park Presbyterian Church, a stately 112-year-old Romanesque Revival structure at the corner of Amsterdam Avenue and West 86th Street. Partly covered by scaffolding to contain chunks of sandstone, some as large as 20 pounds, that have been coming loose, it requires an estimated $2.8 million for facade repairs and $8 million for a more comprehensive restoration.

There are currently two distinctly opposing plans for the building: one for total replacement with an ultramodern glass structure, the other for a historic preservation, albeit with significant alterations. These plans are moving on parallel tracks through an approval process that involves the church itself, its trustees and various levels of the Presbytery.

In a meeting held on Monday, the trustees of the Presbytery voted not to give a green light to either plan but to refer both back to their sponsors for revision. The board's reservations concerned financing rather than design, according to the Rev. Dr. Robert L. Brashear, the church's pastor, who added that he still hoped for final approval before the summer.

West-Park's leaders began acknowledging that drastic measures might be in order more than 10 years ago, and a merger with Rutgers Presbyterian Church at 236 West 73rd Street was proposed. It was defeated.

The questions that followed were vexing. "Do we simply do nothing and see how long we can continue to stretch things out?" Dr. Brashear said. "Do we seek another merger, or do we rebuild for rebirth? The congregation voted to pursue the development option."

About two years ago, the building committee approached several developers and chose the Related Companies to explore what might be done. Related came up with a plan to raze the existing structure, a combination of two connected buildings, and to put up a 23-story condominium tower with new quarters for the church projecting outward at the corner.

The proposed church and the apartment building were both designed by the firm of Franke, Gottsegen, Cox. Subject to modification, its design of the church is basically a prow-shaped base of stone, from which would rise a sweep of transparent glass panels culminating in a 125-foot carillon tower.

"When you enter the sanctuary, your eye will be drawn up to a luminous well of light," said Erika Franke, the partner leading the design team for the project. "You will see the crisscrossing of the structure, like a canopy of trees, but you won't be able to see the top, which we think is an expression of sacredness.

"The sanctuary is very flexible and interfaith use is possible so that space can be shared with other denominations. The church told us it wanted a refuge and a sense of `communitarian communality.' We took our cue from them." The 28,000-square-foot building would double the space for social service and education programs.

The blueprint for the apartment tower, currently 18 stories, calls for 40 condominium units. In return, Related would extend the church $16 million in credit toward construction fees.


When neighbors, particularly ones in adjoining buildings, learned that the plan involved a high rise that could block air and light and that it called for demolition rather than alteration, they swung into action, organizing a group called Friends of West- Park. Its goal was not only to protest but also to come up with a viable alternative plan and the funds to help support it.

As Thomas Vitullo-Martin, co-chairman of the group, put it: "I was not interested, as a community leader, in telling the church that it had to maintain itself for the community good without the community taking some role. We have formed a development company capable of doing what we say and working on a partnership with the church."

The Friends assembled a team of architects and economic and business consultants who were paid for their efforts and who suggested that a portion of the church be sold. "We would find what we call a capital partner and are looking for a not-for-profit entity, probably a school, that would pay for the right to develop a part of the building and their own cost of renovation," Mr. Vitullo-Martin said.

In addition, two neighboring buildings have already agreed to the terms of a lease of easement for air rights, under which they would pay for air and light. The final figure for the easement has yet to be determined, but it will probably exceed $2.5 million, Mr. Vitullo-Martin said.

The design produced for the Friends of West-Park by a collaboration between Peter Samton, a partner in Gruzen Samton Architects, and Page Cowley of Page Ayres Cowley Architects, would more closely resemble the original building, at least on the exterior, with three of the walls expected to be retained. Described more as a concept than an actual design, the plan calls for reconfiguration of the roof into a convex shape, repair of the red sandstone walls and preservation of the stained glass windows. But the interior would be gutted, and the sanctuary, now about 40 feet tall, would be raised to the level of the balcony, opening up space below for other uses.


"The whole interior would hark back to the original design, but it would suit the way worship is performed now," Ms. Cowley said. "It will have movable seating, altar, lectern and table. We will replicate the wood graining to show the ceiling and walls the way they intended, and the stained glass windows will be restored."

Pointing out that there was no more similarity between the two designs than there is between a cat and a horse, she said: "Successful rehabilitation allows the character and original intent of the first architect to come through. So the question is, If not every square inch is sacred turf, how much modification can the structure bear without losing what makes it special?"

For the time being, church leaders are neutral about which design and which financial arrangement they favor. Neighbors at an informational meeting held in the church on Wednesday clearly favored the Friends alternative. Each member of the congregation can vote, with final approval up to the entire Presbytery, a legislative meeting of representatives of all the churches.

Despite the fact that the Friends of West-Park proposal represented widespread opposition to the church's original plan, Dr. Brashear said: "I didn't object to that at all. On the West Side, this could have gone to lawsuits and people walking around with signs. Instead, in a relatively short period of time, a great deal of positive and creative energy has gone into trying to find solutions that would meet the interests of both church and community."



West-Park is not the only church to encounter criticism over the prospect of an apartment house on its land. In fact, the merest suggestion that a residential tower might go up to help the Bowne Street Community Church in Flushing alleviate its financial shortfall ignited a furor.

The church leadership had approached the Clarett Group two years ago about developing its property with a 20-story luxury condo, but L. D. Clepper, chairman of the congregation's governing board, said it had never been more than a wisp of a concept. "It was presented by the building committee as `Hey, look, here's an idea,' " he said. The plan was turned down by a majority of the congregation.

Like West-Park, the church, an amalgamation of congregations formerly aligned with the Reformed Church in America, the United Church of Christ and the Taiwanese Christian Church, was in need of serious repairs. But, Mr. Clepper said, the leadership preferred to expand its public service activities. "We wanted to put in day-care centers for children and the elderly and a soup kitchen," he said.

For now, the church, which was built in the 1890's and which has Tiffany windows, is dipping into its endowment to meet repair expenses. "We are spending anywhere from $20,000 to $40,000 on maintenance, and several years ago we estimated that we would have to spend $500,000 in the next 10 years," Mr. Clepper said.

The battle there is not yet over. It has shifted into a controversy over potential designation by the Landmarks Preservation Commission, which has it on the calendar for consideration.

"The church voted narrowly last summer against landmarking," Mr. Clepper said. "Our opposition is based on the idea that it is a violation of the doctrine of separation of church and state, but I think it will happen, and if it does, we will live with it."

Linda Mandell, a retired schoolteacher, is spearheading the effort to win landmarks approval. Noting that a parking lot on the property would not be part of the landmark, she said: "We are not in any way trying to hurt the church or starve it out. It would still be able to build, but the plans would have to be approved by the commission."

Ms. Mandell lives across the street from the church. "Flushing is incredibly overcrowded," she said, "and this is the only beautiful thing I can see out of my window."


Officials at the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine have also been considering the construction of new buildings on its grounds, but they would almost surely be academic rather than residential.

Several years ago, trustees of the cathedral began to consider leasing two parcels of land on the Morningside Heights campus to raise funds for $20 million in deferred maintenance. One of the parcels runs from Amsterdam Avenue to Morningside Drive north of the cathedral, the other is the southeast corner of the property at West 110th Street and Morningside Drive.

Last year, despite the fact that completion of the majestic structure is nowhere in sight, it was designated a landmark. Part of the agreement with the landmarks commission exempted the vacant parcels so that the cathedral could develop them, and Columbia University was granted exclusive rights over the sites.

But the City Council, which has the power to rule on landmark designations, took the unusual step of turning it down, arguing that the entire campus ought to be landmarked. Mayor Bloomberg vetoed the decision, but the council in turn overrode the veto. The result: no landmark, at least not for now.

"That caused Columbia great pause and they said they didn't want to continue to be involved with us in a way that would injure our relationship with the City Council," said the Very Rev. Dr. James A. Kowalski, dean of the cathedral. "So we are no longer in an exclusive conversation with Columbia."

No matter who ends up with rights to the land and it may well yet be Columbia its disposition is considered critical to the cathedral's resources.

"Last year we had a $1 million deficit on a budget of $7 million to $8 million, and this year will have another $800,000 to $1 million," Dean Kowalski said. "Unless we plug the ongoing deficit, it will be hard to get people to give. They want to give, but not to something that is bleeding to death."

Columbia has come to the aid of another religious institution, the 168-year-old Union Theological Seminary at Broadway and 121st Street, whose endowment has been shrinking since the early 1960's.

"It was large enough so we could limp along through deferred maintenance, but after a while the chicken does come home to roost," said the Rev. Dr. Joseph C. Hough Jr., president of the seminary. "In 1999, the trustees decided to borrow against our real estate holdings to fix the shell."

Another academic institution wanted to buy the entire campus, but that seemed too drastic a move. Columbia will rent two of the seminary's nine buildings and move its religion department there in the fall. "We were ready for a long-term commitment but didn't want one that would last 100 years, and to have an academic partner rent our space was a real bonus," Dr. Hough said.



Development Alliances
A Matter of Compatibility

Compatibility is crucial to the success of any alliance that brings two religious institutions together, whether they are the same denomination or not.

As Rabbi Eric Polakoff, spiritual leader of B'nai Israel, a Reform Jewish congregation in Southbury, Conn., which joined forces with the Federation, Jewish Communities of Western Connecticut, the umbrella organization that provides financing, programs and services, to put up a building, said: "Going into a merger is like going into a marriage. It doesn't always work, but we knew we had to trust one another as institutions because this is a small area and we need one another."

The synagogue was already the product of a merger in 1997, that of Temple Israel, which subsequently sold its building in Waterbury to a Mormon church, and B'nai Chaim, which was renting space in a Lutheran church in Southbury.

"We met in a former dance studio in Woodbury for a few years, trying to live modestly and scrimp for our first home," Rabbi Polakoff said. "We worked hard to integrate our two congregations into one family. Being in the wilderness to do that was a good experience."

Now that they have a home 27,000 square feet on 14 acres where cows still come to graze they have rented out space to another congregation, Beth El Synagogue.

An 80-year-old Conservative congregation from Waterbury, Beth El had 350 families in its heyday. "But people stopped moving into Waterbury, our members were getting old, the building needed repair and it was too much," said Dr. Maurice Falk, a retired pediatrician who is president of Beth El. "In 1997, we decided to sell to a yeshiva for about $600,000 and set up a synagogue in a storefront."

As Rabbi Polakoff sees it, having a place to call home means more than ownership of real estate. "A congregation that does not have a building does not have the permanence to guarantee the future," he said. "If you're really interested in preserving the future, you need a structure."

April 29th, 2004, 03:52 PM
:shock: That ultramodern glass structure is a winner for me...I pray that this one will win that approval! :D