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Landmarking efforts cast in devilish light - Pastor, parishioners jeer plans that could impact Green Church sale

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Just days after the New York State Supreme Court okayed the sale of the Green Church to developer Abe Betesh of Abeco Management for $9.75 million, the pastor and parishioners of the Bay Ridge United Methodist Church have taken to the streets to protest efforts by local elected officials to get the city’s Landmarks Preser-vation Commission (LPC) to look into designating the building. A small group gathered outside the Third Avenue office of City Councilmem-ber Vincent Gentile on Wednesday, January 16th, and outside the Fifth Avenue office of Assem-blymember Janele Hyer-Spencer on Thursday, January 17th, to dramatize their objections to efforts to preserve the historic structure, at Ovington and Fourth Avenues. Justice Larry Martin approved the sale of the church property, which also includes the Sunday School building and a limestone rowhouse, on January 9th. In his order, Martin stipulated that the net proceeds from the sale be used to construct a new church, as well as to create an endowment, the interest from which would be used for the church’s operating expenses, as well as for local and global charitable efforts. The congregation’s point in protesting, as they contended in an open letter is that saving the sanctuary will mean that, “Some children in the world will die because they will not receive the food and medicine we plan to give them through our Board of Global Ministries, and through Doctors Without Borders.” In addition, the letter asserts that, if the building is landmarked, “Bay Ridge seniors and youth will not receive the services we plan to provide.” Why demonstrate? “We were upset about the letters written in December,” explained the Reverend Robert Emerick, the church’s pastor. Specifically, he said, the congregation was reacting to a letter from Gentile to Robert Tierney, the head of the LPC, asking him to reconsider calendaring the church for a landmarking hearing, as well as to a letter from Hyer-Spencer to Christine Quinn, the speaker of the City Council, asking for her help in securing a landmarking hearing. “None of this action was taken in consultation with us,” said Emerick, “so we just had to do something. People just keep pushing and pushing, and disregarding everything we say. We are fed up and we wanted to let them know we’re not to be disregarded like that. We have to let people know we’re not kidding about our mission and our plans.” Gentile, however, averred in a prepared statement that, “As I relayed to the pastor, I am simply trying to find a win-win solution for both the church and the community. “That win-win,” he added, “would address the congregation’s need for revenue and their continued existence while hopefully preserving what many in the community believe is a historical site worth saving. While that will not occur through landmarking as a religious structure, I am trying to come up with innovative ways to make that win-win happen, even if it is partnering with a new owner.” To that end, previously, the councilmember had brokered a deal with the Con Edison Renaissance Housing Program, whereby it would develop 87 units of below-market-rate senior housing on the church parking lot to generate about $300,000 to $350,000 annually for the congregation, while leaving the property in the church’s possession. The income could have been used to restore the sanctuary as well as for church activities. However, the congregation turned the deal down, saying, at the time, that the funding would not have been sufficient, since upkeep was so costly. Hyer-Spencer, too, said she hopes, “To fashion some solution that would be a win for the community and the church.” In an interview that occurred the day after the protest in front of her office, she told this paper that she had called for a hearing, because, as an attorney, she believes that having one would give all parties the opportunity, “To put their positions on record and to be heard without distortion. “Let the facts come forward in public,” Hyer-Spencer urged. In addition, Hyer-Spencer noted, “As an elected official, my job is not to dictate whether the church is demolished or maintained. My job is to make sure all parties are heard and to try to fashion a just solution. If my constituents come to me with a genuine concern, I don’t think it’s appropriate to wash my hands of it.” And, in fact, there has been sustained, vocal opposition to the congregation’s plans. Indeed, in the face of what was clearly hostility to its intentions, the church set about trying to sell its property about three years ago, asking as much as $12 million for the site, which contains not only the sanctuary but the Sunday school building and a limestone rowhouse. The assumption that was made then by community activists appears to be panning out; since his identity was revealed, the developer of the site has indicated that the beloved sanctuary would be demolished to make way for some sort of multifamily housing, possible because the zoning along Fourth Avenue allows the sort of density at which he could build enough to turn a nice profit. “My concern is what’s going to happen there,” said Victoria Hofmo, the founder of the Bay Ridge Conservancy. “What’s going to happen to the parsonage? What’s going to happen to the whole area? What are we getting? What’s going to happen to the community? To me, that matters.” From the congregation’s perspective, the decision to sell was a painful, though necessary one, made because of the expense of maintaining its crumbling façade and because they wanted to use their assets to further their “mission.” Indeed, according to Emerick, members of the congregation are, “Still going through the mourning process,” though they are also, “Hopeful about the future.” Nonetheless, community activists believe that the sanctuary is not beyond repair, and have sought to save the historic, 109-year-old structure, which was designed by American architect George Kramer, and which they say exemplifies the Democratic style of architecture he espoused. They point out that the sanctuary has been on the State and National Registers of Historic Places since 1999, a position it wouldn’t have attained, said Hofmo, if it had truly been falling down. However, arguably the church’s most distinctive feature – the serpentine stone facing that has earned it the nickname of the “Green Church” – is also its greatest weakness because the stone does not weather well and has been crumbling. The façade would therefore certainly require restoration work; but the cost of such work is fiercely debated, with congregation members placing it in the multi-millions, while preservationists say it could cost considerably less. In addition, the deterioration evident on the exterior does not mean that the structure itself is unsound, according to Robert Slater, a contractor with 25 years of experience in restoring old buildings who has analyzed the engineer’s report that the congregation had relied on as evidence that the sanctuary is falling down. Slater had said, back in October, that there is, “Good evidence that it (the Green Church) is structurally sound. There is no listing of the walls out of true, and the ridge lines of the roof are still relative straight and true. There are no major structural cracks. For a 100-year-old building that has been exposed to vehicular and subway traffic, that’s good.” In the meantime, though, Emerick said that he was hoping to see the church demolished by May. However, he told this paper that the congregation – which is responsible for taking the structure down — had not yet, selected a demolition company. “We don’t have a demolition contract signed or a company in mind,” he noted. It’s not over till it’s over, averred Kathy Walker, the co-chairperson of the Committee to Save the Bay Ridge United Methodist Church, when asked to comment on the situation. “We are working on a daily basis with the lawyer to develop a strategy to stop that,” she told this paper. “We are not leaving any stones unturned. We have many people working on different ideas. All bets are not off yet. “This is very important to us and to a lot of people who don’t speak up,” Walker went on. “It’s not for five of us. It’s for hundreds of us. There are other options besides the demolition of the church.”

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