Religious leaders ponder whether selling their buildings to developers is really the best way to protect their congregations.
The sight of old spires squeezed between new towering high-rises suggests the ability of churches and other houses of worship to hang on through block-altering building booms.
Yet the current cycle is drastically testing this staying power, say pastors, preservationists and city officials, even as the chance to develop church property is also presenting opportunities for reinvention.
Facing a shortage of conventional parcels, developers are taking aim at structures with stained glass and bell towers, whose owners are often saddled with mounting bills and declining membership.
But while the moves might seem mutually beneficial, controversy often clouds them.
Some critics accuse developers of preying on struggling organizations, while others call churches the bad guys, betraying their mission by encouraging luxury housing and spurring gentrification in the process.
“There are some who say, ‘You’re selling out the church, you’re selling out the neighborhood, you are having an adverse impact, yada, yada, yada,’ ” said the Rev. Wesley W. Wilson, Jr., the pastor of Second Canaan Baptist Church in Harlem, which is replacing its former home with a new church and a residential condo with finishes like walnut vanities.
“But if you don’t undertake projects like this, chances are the ministry will fold, because the continuing costs of maintaining an old building will sink you.”
From 2013 to 2018, more than three dozen houses of worship and similar buildings in Manhattan were razed or redeveloped to make way for different uses, according to the Manhattan Borough President’s office, which analyzed changes to tax classifications.
While some sites are still holes in the ground, replacement buildings elsewhere are up and running. A longtime synagogue on West 179th Street, for instance, has given way to the Ammann, an eight-story, 24-unit condo from Orient Development. The Washington Heights Congregation, which relocated to an existing building nearby, sold the site in 2014 for $2.6 million. Last month, the least expensive unit at the Ammann, which faces the George Washington Bridge, was a one-bedroom for $598,000.
Similarly, the 1906 brick parish house for the Madison Avenue Baptist Church on East 31st Street in NoMad has been replaced by 30E31, a 40-story, 42-unit condo from Ekstein Development Group and Pinnacle Group opening this fall. One-bedrooms start at $1.7 million.
And the Lagree Baptist Church, which had been based since 1975 in a Beaux-Arts-detailed former movie theater on West 125th Street, has been razed for Eleven Hancock, a glassy 12-story, 71-unit condo. Nortco Development, a Manhattan developer making its first push into Harlem, bought the property from Lagree in 2016 for $28.5 million.
Priced from $585,000, Eleven Hancock offers mostly one- and two-bedrooms, with floor-to-ceiling windows, black-toned kitchen faucets and quartz counters. A three-level space aimed at big box retailers is also in the building, which cantilevers over a neighboring building.
Jeff Krantz, an associate broker agent at Halstead Development Marketing who is handling sales, declined to say how many contracts had been signed since sales began in August. But Mr. Krantz, who has lived in Harlem for a decade, said church conversions are a common local sight. “They’re doing deals to raise capital,” he said.
With more than 900 sites in Manhattan currently classified as religious buildings — a list that includes synagogues, rectories and convents, a few dozen lost buildings might not seem calamitous.
But the number is significant enough to worry some city officials and other watchdog groups.
Gale A. Brewer, the Manhattan Borough President, for one, has compiled a list of nearly 200 properties that could be vulnerable, perhaps because they aren’t as big as they could be under zoning laws, which means they have loads of unused development rights, or air rights, to sell. Staff members from Ms. Brewer’s office have been paying visits to the properties to determine whether they are in harm’s way.
On the list of potentially threatened sites, which Ms. Brewer’s office is reluctant to broadcast over fears it might have the unintended effect of piquing developers’ interest, are many structures that are relatively small, like Bethany Baptist Church, a diminutive red brick building on West 153rd Street in Harlem, and Saint Cyril’s Church, a brownstone-style structure for Slovenian Catholics on Saint Mark’s Place in the East Village.
But higher-profile institutions are also a concern, like Park Avenue Synagogue, a Moorish-style confection on East 87th Street on the Upper East Side that is outside the bounds of the area’s historic districts.
If churches do decide to play developer, Ms. Brewer hopes that affordable housing — and not market-rate units — will result. To that end, in September she announced the formation of a task force made up of religious leaders, affordable-housing developers and preservationists that will hold its first public hearing in November.
Also working to balance solvency and morality is the Rev. Donna Schaper, the senior pastor at Judson Memorial Church in Greenwich Village, where five congregations share a single space to help defray costs.
Three years ago, Ms. Schaper founded Bricks and Mortals, a consulting service that encourages parishes to rent out their rooms to soup kitchens, Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and musical performances, to help balance their books.
A more sweeping solution would be to change zoning rules to let churches sell air rights to noncontiguous sites, like the 2017 Midtown East rezoning, which would be a dramatic expansion of existing rules.
Otherwise, “churches are just going to sell to the highest bidder and become high-end restaurants and high-end buildings, which we don’t need any more of in New York,” Ms. Schaper said.
Some churches are wary of redevelopment because they worry that developers will exploit them. The Charities Bureau of state Attorney General’s office reviews all development deals involving churches to make sure the nonprofits aren’t being scammed.
But the transition from church to condo can lead to problems. In 2015, Saint Luke Baptist Church sold its property at Morningside Avenue and West 123rd Street to Azimuth Development Group for $5 million. In exchange for letting Azimuth build a new apartment building on the site, the developer agreed to also construct a new sanctuary for the church in the building.
But two years after its promised completion, the building is still not finished, which has created major financial hardship for Saint Luke, according to a fraud suit the church filed against Azimuth this summer.
Not only has Azimuth failed to make good on about $21,000 a month in “delay payments,” according to the suit, the church also has had to shell out $15,000 a month for its temporary home in a different part of Harlem, a storefront at Park Avenue and East 130th Street.
“Azimuth, a sophisticated development company that has made its fortune by targeting low-income neighborhoods for gentrification,” the suit says, “has now used its expertise to take advantage of a church.”
Azimuth denies the charges, though Guido Subotovsky, the firm’s president, said in an interview that the new building, a 12-story tower with either 23 rentals or condos, should be completed this fall.
Mr. Subotovsky, who is also converting the Bronx Pentecostal Deliverance Center, a church in the Soundview neighborhood, into a 326-unit mixed-use complex, says developers like him can offer churches much-needed help.
“There are so many churches that say they have 500 people but only 35 show up on Sunday,” he said. “We can put them in a position where they can flourish for years to come.”
Pastors like Mr. Wilson of Second Canaan remain wary. To avoid the fate of Saint Luke, he chose not to merely be a purchaser in the new building, but signed on to actually to codevelop the site with a partner, Level One Holdings.
The new church is on the ground floor of an eight-story building located a block from Central Park. The $25-million project, known as 10 Lenox, will open this fall with 29 studios to three-bedrooms, plus a roof deck with grills.
Twelve of the 29 units, which start at $615,000, have gone into contract since April, according to a spokeswoman for Halstead, which is handling sales. But already, Second Canaan has tapped proceeds from its deal for a new bus and van, while also setting up an endowment for the 72-year-old, 300-member organization, according to Mr. Wilson.
In the mid-2000s, many houses of worship in Brooklyn, especially in neighborhoods with historic landmark protections, were converted into apartment buildings. This time around, developers are casting wider nets.
For years, the Rev. Sharon Williams of the Baptist Church of the Redeemer at Flatbush, at Cortelyou Road and Ocean Avenue, says she watched as her bell-tower-adorned building fell into disrepair. “There was water coming in everywhere,” she said.
Developers of market-rate condos regularly phoned to get her to sell, including one persistent caller who disguised his voice on a second attempt, she said. Ultimately, she went with Mutual Housing Association of New York, a nonprofit that paid $5 million last year and is now building a 76-unit affordable complex on the site.
“When you walk through the neighborhood, new apartments are going up on every block,” Ms. Williams said. Going with affordable over market-rate units “was a necessary response to gentrification.”
When completed in 2020, the building will feature a smaller nave that’s a better fit for her 60 parishioners. But a soup kitchen that had been shuttered because of a lack of suitable space will be reinstated, she said. The church has been temporarily housed a few blocks away at the Emmanuel Church of God on Flatbush Avenue, near Foster Avenue.
Not everybody is impressed. Twice, neighbors asked the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission to declare the 1920 church a landmark. But they were unsuccessful. Others took issue with the height of the new tower, which at nine stories, seems enormous compared with wood-frame Victorians around the corner. “But everything in New York City is changing,” Ms. Williams said, “and our change is in the direction of serving the underserved.”
Churches in need of basic repairs can turn to the Sacred Sites Program of the New York Landmarks Conservancy, an advocacy group. Since 1986, the program has awarded grants of up to $50,000 to hundreds of churches for things like patching roofs.
Ann-Isabel Friedman, the program’s director, said she wished her funds had been tapped to fix the Church of the Redeemer, an 1866 bluestone building at 24 Fourth Avenue in Boerum Hill before it became too run down to repair.
Instead, the Episcopal Diocese of Long Island sold the Gothic Revival-style building for $20 million to the Jackson Group, a developer, which bulldozed the church. In 2017, the developer Adam America Real Estate, bought the site for $36 million and is now building Five Six One Pacific, a 12-story, 63-unit condo.
Apartments there feature oak floors and marble counters, while amenities include a parking garage. A spokeswoman declined to share sales figures at the condo, whose lowest-priced apartment a studio, was $700,000.
“With every real-estate cycle, developers will systemically call on religious institutions because their sites are soft,” Ms. Friedman said.
In a way, it’s an odd time for churches to disappear. The number of congregations in New York is actually increasing, according to census records. There were 1,426 congregations in Brooklyn in 2010, up from 959 in 2000, records show, with large gains in Manhattan and Queens, too. And the 2020 census is expected to show more growth, religious leaders predict.
But small mosques and storefront churches account for a lot of the uptick. Older and highly visible institutions that once served Episcopalians and Lutherans, for example, are indeed closing. And dozens of Catholic churches, facing low attendance, have also gone dark in the past 15 years.
“Every time we turn around, another is being sold,” Gilford T. Monrose, who directs the Office of Faith-Based and Clergy Initiatives on behalf of Eric L. Adams, the Brooklyn Borough President.
Concerned that the borough is losing an important source of community services, Mr. Monrose has been working over the past few years to get churches to consider affordable housing as a lifeline.
Besides informing churches about grant opportunities and offering them work space in Brooklyn Borough Hall, the office also invests in faith-based development projects, Mr. Monrose said.
“We’re still the Borough of Churches,” he said.
After the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints outgrew its two-story column-fronted chapel in the Murray Hill section of Queens, near Flushing, it sought to build a soaring new facility on a residential block in nearby Linden Hill.
Despite some local opposition to the construction of a church building on a street lined with houses, the city granted a zoning variance for the new chapel, which has a 92-foot steeple and which claimed three houses in order to be built.
Rong Xin Realty, meanwhile, bought the old site for $27 million in 2018, where it is building Flushing Garden Condominiums, an eight-story project with 131 one- to two-bedrooms, about half of which have balconies. Sales will start next year at the market-rate building, which hopes to sell apartments for around $1,000 a square foot, said Benny Chen, a Rong Xin principal. The condo will open in 2021. “We got the last spot in Flushing,” Mr. Chen said.
Good deeds were on the mind of the leaders of the First Presbyterian Church of Jamaica, which has partnered with the Bluestone Organization, a for-profit developer, on a 12-story, 174-unit affordable tower on a former church parking lot.
Called the Tree of Life, the $74-million mid-rise will have studios to three-bedrooms, and feature solar panels and a roof deck, plus job training facilities for the public. Individuals with incomes as low as $32,000 can qualify to live at the project, which opens next summer.
“We had the sense we could do more for the community,” said the Rev. Patrick O’Connor, who heads a 500-member church that has continuously operated in Jamaica since 1662 and which currently offers a soup kitchen, recovery services and health screenings.
Mr. O’Connor arrived at his decision to marry God and mammon, so to speak, after surveying more than 1,000 neighbors, who said what Jamaica was lacking was reasonably priced apartments.
The Tree of Life, rising from property purchased by the church in 2008, didn’t require the demolition of any historic structures on the church’s tree-shaded multi-building campus. But the church did transfer air rights to the building, which is by far the tallest on its block.
As Mr. O’Connor sees it, some churches rightfully deserve a bad rap for being too profit-minded about real estate. But at the same time, the city has become so expensive for working-class people that it has pushed churches to take action, which in many cases means putting shovels in the ground. “In a sense,” he said, “it’s forced churches to be better stewards of the resources that are available to them.”
By C. J. Hughes
Oct. 4, 2019