After fighting for two years to preserve an historic Maspeth church, residents were dismayed last week to see demolition crews raze its parsonage in just a few hours. Now, locals fear the site’s sanctuary will be next.
Last Wednesday, a demolition contractor, Always Fast Inc., showed up at the 1.5-acre site of the vacant St. Saviour’s Episcopal Church on Rust Street and quickly leveled the 159-year-old parsonage. The nearby sanctuary was left untouched.
Nevertheless, the demolition dealt a harsh blow to community activists, who had fought to preserve the property in its entirety. “The thing was a package, so to lose one or the other is tragic,” said Christina Wilkinson, of the Juniper Park Civic Association. “We would’ve liked to have seen both (structures) saved.”
Now, with part of the property in ruins, civic members wonder how long the remaining structure will remain standing.
The property’s owner, Maspeth Development LLC, abruptly withdrew a longstanding application late last month with the Department of City Planning that would have allowed the company to build dozens of housing units around the church on what is currently an industrially-zoned lot.
On the same day, Nov. 28, the owner also got permission from the city’s Department of Buildings to demolish the parsonage. But to date, the company has not sought a similar demolition permit for the sanctuary.
“They’re trying to hold this (recent demolition) over our heads and tell us they can destroy more if they want,” Wilkinson charged, noting that in July crews cleared 185 trees from the site, after her group sought to turn the land into a public park. “It’s a way to show what they can do. Otherwise, why not knock down both buildings?”
Speaking to the New York Daily News earlier this month on condition of anonymity, the owner confirmed that he was not seeking another demolition permit. But he also said he was no longer honoring a previous agreement to restore the church, now that his housing plan has been jettisoned.
In the meantime, the development firm is putting St. Saviour’s back on the market with an asking price of $10 million. On Nov. 26, the church went up for sale in an online craigslist advertisement telling buyers they can “build up to 85,000 sq. ft. of residential” on a “vacant land” that would also be “ideal for any commercial space.”
When asked whether the property had attracted any potential buyers, Ann Booth, a spokeswoman for Danrich Family Homes, the firm that posted the advertisement, said, “we’ve had interest from several people, but nobody’s signed a contract yet.”
The developer’s decision to sell the site follows a protracted battle by the Juniper Park Civic Association to preserve the property, which was founded by pioneers in the mid-19th century.
The church served as a place of worship for decades until the fall of 2005, when Maspeth Development bought the site and applied for zoning changes that would allow for 70 units of housing.
Since then, the civic group has fought to block all development efforts — securing stop work orders, filing a lawsuit, which failed, and lobbying the city to deny the requisite zoning changes.
Middle Village Councilman Dennis Gallagher later drew the group’s ire for brokering a compromise that stopped the developer from bulldozing the church in exchange for an agreement from the City Planning Department to allow for increased density housing around the existing building.
Finally, the owner said he got tired of losing thousands of dollars on the property in taxes and mortgage payments, and decided to abort his rezoning application because of a lack of support from the city.
An official from the City Planning Department has flatly denied that the agency put up any resistance to the owner’s plan, contending that the application could have been certified by year’s end. The decision to withdraw the application, the official added, came as a complete surprise.
Whatever the case, with the zoning application no longer pending, the owner is free to apply for new demolition permits at the site, which will remain an as-of-right manufacturing zone that can be used for industrial or retail purposes, not housing.
The change leaves the historic property’s fate all the more uncertain. But civic group members say they’ll continue fighting to keep the sanctuary standing. “This is our heritage, our history,” said Civic Association President Bob Holden. “We cannot allow it to be lost.”