A congregation tears down its church to expand its mission

The Presbyterian congregation will put up affordable senior housing in the church's place.

In 1922, when the First Presbyterian Church of Astoria moved to the wilderness that is now Queens, it was on the cutting edge of community development.

Today, the congregation is leading a new kind of church renewal, one that entails downsizing physically as it expands its mission spiritually.

By the 1950s, the church was thriving with more than 1,200 congregants. It even hosted a basketball league, as a dusty case of trophies attests.

But today, like many urban churches, Astoria's First Presbyterian has a dwindling number of parishioners – less than 50 on the books. The church operates in the red, its grand buildings are decaying, and the Rev. Donald Olinger spends much time just figuring out how to keep the doors open.

So he and his flock knew it was time for something radical. In an emotional decision, they have agreed to tear down the elegant old buildings and replace them with more than 90 units of affordable housing for senior citizens.

The church will end up with a sanctuary room in the new building for its Sunday services, as well as a $4 million endowment that it can use to expand its spiritual mission.

"It's kind of a bittersweet time because on the one hand, we're losing something very special to all of us," says Dr. Olinger. "On the other side, it's a very exciting time because we're getting to reinvent ourselves and to provide the type of church that can be appealing and meet the needs of today's world."

Many urban churches that have closed in the past few decades have been turned into affordable housing. What's unusual about this project – and 10 similar ones in the pipeline, mostly in New York City – is that the churches will remain open. With the income from the development and use of their land, they'll be able to focus more directly on serving the needs of their communities rather than their decaying buildings.

The idea came in part from Enterprise Community Partners, the nation's leading purveyor of knowledge about how to leverage financing to build affordable housing. Working in conjunction with the Faith Center, an ecumenical resource in New York for spiritually oriented community development, they're working to turn the First Presbyterian Church's experience into a national model.

"We're trying to formalize an initiative so if you're a church [congregation], no matter where you are, with excess property or obsolete facilities, and you think there might be development potential, we want Enterprise and the Faith Center to be the first place you think to call," says Kirk Goodrich, vice president of the Northeast Region at Enterprise. "The goal is to create a system that dispenses timely and trusted advice to churches no matter where they may be."

In New York, as in most other cities, the housing boom of the past decade has made it even harder to create more affordable housing. In the past, affordable-housing advocates were able to work with abandoned properties owned by the city. But that stock of land is mostly gone, and they have had to look for alternatives.

Enterprise has found at least one with underutilized church facilities. But the organization, as well as New York City officials, are looking for a variety of new land sources, including decaying neighborhood libraries, underutilized transit authority parking lots and garages, and closed mental facilities and hospitals.

"It's critical to think about creative ways to come up with what is essentially new land, new opportunities for residential developments, because in cities like New York, the price pressure [on land] is so high" that it's extremely difficult to build affordable housing, says Ingrid Ellen, co-director of the Furman Center for Real Estate and Urban Policy at New York University.

Enterprise is hoping to go national with its program for church redevelopment because it believes there is a match between its mission and that of most churches.

"The advantage of church properties is that when you talk about affordable housing, oftentimes there's a match between our missions, which is to serve the community and to serve the least well-off in that community," says Jim Himes, director of Enterprise New York.

As word has spread about Enterprise's work and the Astoria project, more churches have begun calling and asking about the viability of transforming their facilities. That's in part because of a trust factor, says Bishop David Benke, president of the Atlantic District of the Lutheran Church, Missouri Synod.

"One peril [in the process] is greedy developers who will flip the properties, promise you the moon, and then be unable to deliver," says Bishop Benke. "So the more trusted partners there are, the more sense it makes for the local church [and] also the national church [to work with groups like Enterprise.]"

The financing of affordable housing is extremely complex, as Olinger and his congregation discovered. It requires a mix of federal grants, tax credits, and other sophisticated financing mechanisms. Enterprise has helped them navigate the financial terrain. But one of the most difficult parts of the process was the decision itself. Parishioners were baptized here, were married, and raised their children in these pews. Several decided they'd rather leave the church than lose the building.

But with an estimated $3 million of needed repairs, and a huge deficit looming, the majority of the congregation decided it was best to lose the buildings.

Brian O'Donnell is a parishioner who was married here. He says he does have an emotional attachment to the building, but also says a church is something more than its four walls, no matter how elegant they are.

"The church is not a physical structure. It's not the stained-glass windows; it's not these pews," he says. "It's the people in the church. It's our mission, and it's our potential to do good in the community through this project and our potential to expand our spiritual work through this project."

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