Nearly 10 years after Bay Ridge’s beloved “Green Church” was demolished, the portion of the property saved by the congregation to build a new sanctuary is up for sale as a “development site.”
A sign advertising the property was posted at the end of March on the fence in front of the 7,920-square-foot construction site at 364 Ovington Avenue, just off Fourth Avenue. Beyond is evidence of construction begun, with steel beams rising vertically near a masonry structure; ground was broken for the new sanctuary in December, 2015.
Community Board 10 “has received calls about the lot now being up for sale,” noted District Manager Josephine Beckmann, who told this paper that recently the board had been handling paperwork relating to the sanctuary’s construction and that a crane operation had been scheduled for April 7 and 14 that she had just confirmed was still on the crane crew’s calendar.
“Neighbors are concerned about what could potentially be developed there, as well as whether the crane operations will take place over the next two weekends as planned,” Beckmann went on.
“I just want to know what’s going on,” said preservationist Victoria Hofmo, who was one of the leaders of the charge to save the original sanctuary. “Obviously, I’m very unhappy the original sanctuary came down, but now I’m perplexed. What was the point of the whole thing? What changed? They paid for an architect, started to build. I’m surprised they went through all that trouble.”
The site is zoned R5B, with a 33-foot height limit as of right for new construction. The city’s Department of City Planning says three-story rowhouses typify the zoning district. According to sources, the reported asking price for the remainder of the property is $5.9 million.
The Bay Ridge United Methodist Church (its official name) was razed by the congregation in fall, 2008, to make way for a market rate housing development, with the congregation contending that its mission was not to preserve a building but to do good works, and that the $9.75 million realized from the sale would enable that to take place, as well as construct a new, smaller sanctuary.
However, before the sale could take place, the bottom fell out of the housing market, and while the dwindling congregation made the sale to developer Abe Betesh, the latter eventually sold the bulk of the property — which once held the sanctuary, the Sunday school building and the parsonage (the latter a semi-attached house at the end of a stretch of rowhouses whose removal caused structural problems in the house next door) — to the city for use as a school.
The congregation has since been holding its services at the Bay Ridge United Methodist Church at Fourth Avenue and Bay Ridge Parkway, while moving ahead slowly with construction of a new sanctuary, which it promoted in the days leading up to the old church’s razing as environmentally friendly, with a smaller footprint appropriate for the smaller congregation.
“I think it’s sad that it’s not going to be a church,” said Kathy Walker, one of the leaders of the Committee to Save the Green Church. “That’s what everybody expected, but I guess their plan changed. Whatever it’s going to be, we’re going to have to wait and see, but I hope they don’t further disturb the block and the school and the residents. They’ve certainly been through a lot.”
For Councilmember Justin Brannan, there’s a certain level of disappointment as well, though for a different reason. “I’m not sure what happened or why things fell apart,” he told this paper, “but it’s unfortunate because we could have used this property to build a larger school when we built years ago.”
The controversy over the original church’s demolition was in large part due to its architectural significance. Faced in greenish serpentine stone, the Romanesque Revival structure — which was added to the state and national Registers of Historic Places in 1999 at the congregation’s behest — had been built in 1899 and was noted for its superior acoustics.
Also concerning to the community was the fate of the remains of some 200 church members, who had been interred in a crypt on the property. Six months before the sanctuary’s demolition, they were exhumed and reburied elsewhere as neighborhood residents lit candles at the church property’s border.
The stone that made the church distinctive may have led to its downfall, with the congregation, at the time, citing the easily damaged facing stone’s deteriorating condition as making the building too costly to maintain.
Nonetheless, numerous efforts were spearheaded by community leaders and activists to save the original church, while providing the congregation with the necessary money to pursue its mission, but none of these came to fruition, with the church actually turning down two of them.
It’s the loss of distinctive buildings like the old sanctuary that hurts Walker. “These new cookie cutter buildings, glass and cement and cinder block, are not the Bay Ridge I grew up with,” she said. “It’s the changing face of Bay Ridge.”
By press time, attempts to reach BRUMC pastor Robert Emerick and congregation president John Donlon were unsuccessful.