Flushing church passes on development

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After members voiced opposition, a historic Flushing church has put off a decision on a proposal by a Manhattan developer that sought to build a new church on the property in exchange for being allowing to put up the tallest structure in Flushing next door.

But part of the church eventually may be torn down in order to keep the financially strapped congregation alive.

About four months ago, the Bowne Street Community Church was approached with a tempting offer by The Clarett Group, the Manhattan development company, which is advising The New York Times on its new headquarters in Midtown.

Clarett told the church it wanted to build a 20-story apartment building on the property, according to Lawrence Clepper, chairman of the church’s building feasibility committee.

In exchange for knocking down the historic building, the developer offered to construct a new church that would include a high-tech audio/visual system with handicapped access next to the apartment building.

Clarett could not be reached for comment.

The church, located at the corner of Roosevelt Avenue and Bowne Street, also asked Clarett for $1 million, a price the developer said it would consider, according to Clepper.

But at a Sept. 8 meeting, the congregation came out against demolishing the structure, an 1892 red-brick Romanesque Revival building famous for its Tiffany stained-glass windows. The membership decided to table the issue.

“I’m 99.9 percent certain that the Clarett proposal is dead,” Clepper said.

But for Clepper and a select few in the congregation the offer was very tempting.

Like many of the older churches in northeast Queens, the Bowne church has seen a decline in its membership over the last few decades. There are about 160 members.

The church, originally the Protestant Reformed Dutch Church of Flushing, survived the drop in membership by merging with other congregations. In 1971, the First Congregational Church of Flushing joined, and the organization became the Bowne Street Community Church. At their height in the early 1950s, the Protestant Reformed Dutch Church and First Congregational Church had more than 700 members.

In 1988, the Zion Christian Church, a Taiwanese organization, merged with the Bowne church, creating a bilingual congregation.

As membership fell off, the cost of maintaining the church rose. Clepper estimated that more than $700,000 has been spent since 1974 to make repairs to the church, and foundation work would cost another $500,000 over the next decade.

With these costs, the church’s endowment has been depleted, leading Clepper and a minority of the congregation to push for a serious consideration of Clarett’s offer.

“We felt like that kind of money could be much better spent of service to the community rather than spending it on repairing the building,” Clepper said.

The church’s decision came as Stanley Cogan, president of the Queens Historical Society, began mobilizing against the church’s possible destruction.

Cogan urged Flushing residents to take action to save the church at a Community Board 7 meeting on Sept. 9.

“As important as modernizing the Bowne Street Community Church is, I think it is equally important to preserve our heritage and history,” Cogan said. “We’ve lost many things in Flushing, but I really think we shouldn’t lose the Bowne Street Community Church.”

While the Bowne church appears to have dismissed the Clarett deal, its financial struggles have not disappeared and as a result, the building still may be altered.

On Sunday, the building feasibility committee met to discuss other ways to save the church.

One proposal discussed was knocking down part of the church to make room for a smaller apartment building but keeping the sanctuary, the home of most of the church’s Tiffany windows, intact.

Clepper said he wanted as much as anyone to keep the historic church. But without outside financial help, he questioned whether or not saving the church was possible.

“We’re going to run out of those funds in the next 10 years, and then what will we do?”

Reach reporter Alexander Dworkowitz by e-mail at or call 229-0300, Ext. 141.

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