The latest chapter in a long and bitter struggle between local civic groups, elected officials and foreign real estate developers came to a head late last week, as demolition of the historic Saint Saviour’s Church in Maspeth got under way amid vociferous protest.
Crews acting on behalf of the property’s owner, Maspeth Development LLC — a locally registered, but foreign-based company — began demolishing the church’s adjoining parish hall building last Wednesday, Feb. 27. Parts of the roof were collapsed and sections of walls were pulled down.
Demolition was brought to a halt the next day, however, due to concerns raised by the city Department of Environmental Protection that the demolition could pose asbestos contamination problems.
DEP inspectors were sent out the following day, Friday, to inspect the site. Some tests for asbestos came back positive, said Mercedes Padilla, a spokeswoman for the department. Per DEP requirements, the owners were expected to hire a licensed asbestos contractor before further demolition could proceed.
Padilla said that the property owners hired a properly certified company and began their asbestos work on Saturday. No demolition work was resumed.
By March 4, DEP inspectors had returned to the site for follow-up inspections and had confirmed that the owner was in compliance with DEP demands. The department, Padilla said, would continue to monitor demolition work there as it continued.
Several community action and civic groups have vowed to fight the demolition, as they have for several years.
Last Friday, in the harsh chill of a bright winter morning, roughly thirty such protesters gathered at the site to publicly voice their grievances in support of what they deem a precious piece of Queens history.
Eric Scheidt, a 75-year old community resident was on hand, donning a Korean War Veteran cap, waving a sign which read, “Mayor Bloomberg: Remember Queens?”
“This is really a sad situation that they have to tear down an historic church in an historic community, he said. “They should preserve our heritage. They’re tearing down our history.”
Bob Holden, president of the Juniper Park Civic Association shouted through a bullhorn at the protest that to lose this church was “a crime” and that “the people responsible should be arrested.”
He and other protesters questioned the absence of support by elected officials from the area, like Councilman Dennis Gallagher and others.
“Where is Helen Marshall?” he asked, referring to the Queens borough president. “Can she come and save the history of Queens.”
City Councilman Tony Avella, who is based in Bayside, was on hand as well.
“When is the city going to respond to the needs of neighborhoods like Maspeth?” he shouted. “Where are my colleagues on the City Council?”
State Sen. Serphin Maltese also sent two representatives from his office to the rally, though they did not speak for him.
As of March 5, the future of the church’s main chapel was still uncertain. Christina Wilkinson, of the JPCA, said the group is still looking into the legality of some of the actions being carried-out on site.
What is certain is that, for the moment, the site is little more than a shadow of what it once was.
Designed by architect Richard Upjohn and built in 1847, the old wooden church — though it was altered after a fire 1970 — was occupied as a place of worship until 2005 when it was sold to Maspeth Development. Where grass and thick groves of towering trees once made the property something of an oasis for the neighborhood, the property now sits denuded and littered with dumpsters and debris.
As recently as last month, the All Faiths Cemetery in Middle Village had said it would receive the building if the funding to move the building could be secured.
Gallagher has long asserted that $1 million had been secured through the parks department for acquisition of the church and a half-acre of the surrounding property as parks land.
In a phone interview, he said that the Parks Department had decided it did not want Saint Saviour’s for a park, which jeopardized the future of the money.
“None of the money is spent as of now,” he said. In order for the money to be redirected toward moving the building to All Faiths, he explained, the move would have to undergo a lengthy public review process. In the meantime, the money would just sit there, unless the Parks Department decides to use it for something else first.
A spokesman for State Senator Serphin Maltese, Justin DiSanzo, confirmed that a capital funds grant of $100,000 had been secured for the church. The grant was secured a year ago, but so far no one has touched the money.
Tony Nunziato, chairman of the Maspeth-Middle Village Task Force, said that, as the first site in Queens to have been settled by the Dutch, Maspeth was rich in history — history that, in general, wasn’t being adequately protected.
St. Saviour’s represented an important piece of the neighborhood’s history, he said the day before the protest.“This is a disgrace. Our elected officials aren’t working together to preserve the history of Maspeth.”