City Officials Look Away as Churches Disappear

Urbanist Julia Vitullo-Martin wrote in 2007 that if current development trends continue, New York may one day be a city without houses of worship.

Historically, nearly every neighborhood in every borough was anchored by houses of worship -- churches, synagogues, mosques, temples -- built by immigrants. But some of the most beautiful of these, abandoned by their congregations due to shrinking membership, soaring maintenance, changing demographics, and declining membership, are crumbling.

Even as churches struggle to survive, they are increasingly targeted by developers looking to grab the city's last big development parcels. Sometimes, congregations have successfully used developers without sacrificing their property. When the vaulted ceiling of St. Theresa's, at 10 Rutgers Street in Lower Manhattan, collapsed in 1995, for instance, the congregation sold developers the air rights to a parking lot next door to build market-rate apartments, which allowed the parish to renovate its 1842 Gothic church.

But most congregations just take the developer's money and let their building be demolished -- which city officials are surprisingly unlikely to notice or oppose, Vitullo-Martin said. This disengagement of city officials, the guardians of neighborhood quality of life, might have been understandable at the dawn of the 21st century, when the extent of the crisis wasn't yet apparent. Houses of worship, and the light and air their scale permitted, were assumed to be safe from developers at that point, probably why zoning regulations were not updated then. But by now, when every community board district in the city has lost or is about to lose an important religious structure, she said, the lack of official engagement can no longer be explained.

As most recently demonstrated in the heart-wrenching battle for Staten island's Mt. Manresa, communities cannot compete with commercial developers backed by tens of millions in investment dollars, but they can affect outcomes by supporting development options other than teardown, said Vitullo-Martin. Most new buildings in New York City's built-up neighborhoods depend on some official variance or permit from City Planning, the Board of Standards and Appeals or the Department of Buildings.  It's worth something to a developer to have the support of the neighborhood in getting the necessary permissions from the city, as part of a quid pro quo, she said.

At this point, enough houses of worship have been rescued by community-developer alliances to show that it's doable, but working around a historic structure is always harder than just tearing it down, Vitullo-Martin said. It takes specialized knowledge -- about the site, the zoning, air rights, subsidies, affordable housing, etc., to do this kind of sophisticated deal.

If partnering with a developer is the only option for houses of worship sitting on prime real estate, neighborhoods like Bay Ridge, where recent down-zoning bars high-rise development, will have a harder time saving churches, Vitullo-Martin said, because there are no air rights to trade off.

Since 2005, religious buildings listed on the National Register have been eligible for federal funds for repair. Yet only a handful of the hundreds of eligible historic houses of worship have applied for the National Register, because their owners usually fear federal restrictions on the sale of their property. Most of these owners also refuse local landmark designation, leaving their historic buildings unprotected and thus easier to sell.

Vitullo-Martin has called for the creation of a high-level commission of church leaders, preservationists, developers, financiers, advocates, and city officials to both lay out the problem of the city's disappearing churches and recommend solutions. If no one takes this on, she said, New York will continue losing its neighborhood houses of worship one-by-one, leaving the city a sadder, uglier place.

The post from the Manhattan Institute.

Council Member Vinnie Gentile, responding to the news, in 2014, that Bay Ridge's historic "Church of the Generals" is closing, vows to find a way to preserve it [Brooklyn Eagle.]

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