“A 15-story apartment house behind St. Luke’s!” I repeated, stunned at the thought of the nice clerical caretakers of our historic 1821 church exhibiting Rudin-like greed. How could they do it?

As the church development officer, John Donnelly, revealed the plan to exchange the vow of poverty for renting luxury apartments to Wall Street winners, I was aware of a sinking feeling – how could they do it, how could they do it?

This article is an attempt to explore that question and my colleague, architect, and urban planner, Barry Benepe invited Reverend Caroline Stacey to explain her side of the story.

I got into trouble with what I suppose is a normally pleasant Reverend Stacey when I kiddingly suggested to their PR agent that maybe religion was no longer a profitable business while private schools certainly were. Furthermore, the essential purpose for giving the Toll Brothers a 99-year lease to build and manage the St. Luke’s luxury apartment tower (they euphemistically call it a campanile) was to finance the building of two more floors on the non-profit school, to add 50% more seats at $35,000 a seat. Yet in my conversation with the school head, Bart Baldwin, he explained that the school recently split off from the church and was arranging for their own financing for the construction and had their own architect.

So the question is, why does Reverend Stacey say we need the St. Lucre tower?

Here is where it gets tenuous. The 99-year split of the luxury apartment rents between the Toll Brothers and St. Luke’s will (they say) allow St. Luke’s to charge a lesser rent to the school, therefore allowing it to more easily pay off the construction mortgage.

At this point, I could feel Reverend Mother Caroline Stacey getting steamed because as she says, we have other church “missions” and they do – once a week on Saturday night at 6pm, they have an open house and free meal for AIDs victims and then at 9pm, they invite LGBT adolescents.

However, they do need money; not to run the church and pay for the free meals (they receive contributions from the parish members and from grants). The budget is only around $2.2 million a year, but all of those 1820 town houses on either side of the church are, as the Reverend says, “shabby chic” and seemingly in desperate need of major refurbishment.

Now, these buildings are rented and as Reverend Stacey admonished, “Everybody thinks we pay no taxes. We have to pay taxes on those buildings.”

Stacey starts by saying that the building of 15 floors of luxury apartments is not driven by economic necessity, that “in no way is this a fire sale.” She continued, “This has been carefully planned for generations, decades. A strategic plan which is designed to deal with – yes to deal with – some projected infrastructure repairs but primarily so that the school can expand. And for the church to expand its mission and serve the community, its needs to involve all the generations including perhaps the elderly, including perhaps a health clinic, as well as providing 20% affordable housing, the first in the West Village for generations and providing continued open space.”

(The affordable 20% apartments are smaller and located on the less desirable lower floors and can only be acquired via a lottery in which the rent is tied to your income and is open to all, not only West Villagers.)

So, if we accept Mother Stacey’s statement, other than fixing up the several town houses on their compound, they don’t really need serious money right now and their share of the luxury apartment rents might be used for operating a senior center or even a health clinic. The church right now has a stable cash flow, “We don’t have to build the 15 story apartment building but it would be nice to have the money.”

In my interview with Mother Stacey, she inadvertently rushed into some horse-trading. She explained that all of the developers submitted plans that used the garden except Toll Brothers, who threw up all the square feet in the 15-story tower and saved the garden. “So, if the community would prefer we did something a little more low level and took away the sanctuary (garden), that’s certainly an option that we can look at.”

It is not uncommon for developers to submit a higher building in the first draft knowing they will have to cut it back to get approval, (Rudin did it) so maybe we are looking at a 10-story compromise; but even that is too much.

However, Reverend Stacey continued with some interesting comments. “We have roughly 1,000 members and the church attendance last Sunday was 240. When I arrived, the budget was $1.6 million and it is now 2.2 million. The giving is stable, there was a drop off during the recession in 2001, which one might expect, but we are incredible wise stewards of the resources we have.

“Yes, there are life-long Episcopalians, but we also have Roman Catholics who are not comfortable with the positions of that church so they come to the Episcopal Church. They raise their children in the Episcopal tradition and of course they are full members of the Church. Whether they become members of the Episcopal Church is up to them, we don’t mandate. Perhaps 50% are cradle Episcopalians and the other half are perhaps Roman Catholic or Methodist or some very conservative Protestant church that fits the Episcopalian understanding of God.”

As my interview came to an end, I reminded them that the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation said yes to the two additional floors on top of the school but no to the tower, and Community Board 2 had voted it down unanimously, but architect Brian Rice interrupted.

“You are correct with that but what I am saying is there were a group of people that we presented it to that were not available for that meeting and there was discussion and not necessarily an agreement.” This is an indication of how fixated both the architect, Barry Rice and Reverend Stacey are. They read a flat CB 2 turn down as “open for discussion,” and the people who were for it simply did not show up.

The head of the Church Finance Committee stood up at the CB 2 meeting and said something to the effect that if we didn’t have such a big financial problem, we wouldn’t be considering a 15-story apartment house. However, neither Stacey nor Rice heard it that way and their spin is too long for my transcribing abilities.

In doing the research for this article, I learned that when they built the school in the Fifties, some of the 1820s townhouses were torn down. They are gone forever and if we now allow them to build a 15-story apartment house, we will have impaled an enclave of irreplaceable historic architecture with a 15-story tombstone honoring ego and greed as responsible stewardship.

5 thoughts on “Trading Tradition for Cash

    • Author gravatar

      It seems that the Episcopal Church in New York City is so dazzled by real estate dollars that they are totally abandoning their commitment serving the poor, respecting their neighbors, and being good stewards of historic properties. The Cathedral of St John the Divine is leading the way with a proposal to build a gargantuan, 15 story, luxury 425 unit apartment building right next to the cathedral on West 113th Street regardless of community opposition.

    • Author gravatar

      Good to know there are folks out there fighting the good fight to preserve a parking lot.

    • Author gravatar

      Will be glad when the old guard only thinking of themselves complaining about the loss of a parking lot while totally ignoring the opportunities to better serve the wider NYC community from the income generated by the innovative and beautiful structure approved by both Landmarks and the community board and built by Toll moves on.

    • Author gravatar

      The research on this article was marginal at best. Those townhouses you are complaining about that were torn down before they fell down we’re turned into the beautiful St. Luke’s Gardens. That the community now enjoys. Once again proving that actions by church leadership has improved the block for use by the wider NYC community. You are welcome.

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