What's next for Maspeth's Historic Church and Land?

Maspeth Development, LLC has withdrawn its application to build 70+ housing units at the historic St. Saviour’s site in West Maspeth. This turn of events was unexpected mainly because the project seemed to have been on the fast track. The zoning change seemed to be “a done deal” due to intense lobbying of members of Community Board 5, the Borough President and the Department of City Planning by Councilman Dennis Gallagher.

On November 29th, Councilman Tony Avella informed us that he received notification that the development company’s application for a zoning change for the site had been withdrawn. Unfortunately, he did not know why. A subsequent call to the Department of City Planning confirmed that the application was pulled, but offered no new information about the reason behind it.

The following excerpt is from a letter dated January 29, 2007 from the Department of Environmental Protection to the Department of City Planning, regarding a mandatory environmental review needed prior to the certification of the development company’s zoning change application:

“The January Phase I revealed several environmental concerns, including the potential for underground heating oil tanks which were not identified on any of the searched databases, but were noted to be present during the site investigation. Additionally, a 10-foot diameter soil stain of petroleum nature was observed on the south side of the site. Bags of garbage and construction debris were observed on the same side of the site. Based on the age of the on-site structure…asbestos containing materials and lead-based paint could be present in the buildings and…prior to demolition work, an asbestos survey should be conducted.”

Photographs show that the developers were storing waste material from other construction sites on the property from December, 26, 2005 to approximately April 2, 2006, when they filed a police report claiming that 7 of their yellow dumpsters had been stolen. This is the “garbage and construction debris” referred to in this document, and may be the source of the 10-foot wide oil stain. Therefore it is entirely possible that the development company contaminated its own property, and, as the letter suggests, there could also be decades-old contamination from oil tanks and asbestos. Perhaps the remediation proved too costly for the developers and that is why the project was abandoned.

The downturn in the housing market may also have been a factor in the change of heart. St. Saviour’s was purchased by Maspeth Development, LLC in July 2005, at the peak of NYC’s housing boom. By 2006, the Wall Street Journal was reporting: “Now…the city may be heading into a…downturn as construction costs rise as much as 45 percent in the last two years, interest rates increase and the city's housing sales market cools…housing has slowed down considerably from last year.”

The fate of St. Saviour’s remains uncertain, but it appears that there will not be 70+ housing units at the site in the near future. We want to see the church saved and will continue to fight to save it, but at the same time we are relieved to hear that the area will not be further overdeveloped.

The Queens Civic Congress and Queens Coalition for Parks and Green Space has suggested diverting some of the money from the misguided Ridgewood Reservoir plan toward the acquisition of threatened historical sites throughout Queens, including St. Saviour’s. It’s time for our elected representatives to support this plan. West Maspeth has many residents, and is sure to soon have many more, but is devoid of open space. This may be the last parcel available for the people who live here and pay taxes. They deserve to have a park within 10 minutes walking distance of their homes as the mayor has promised to provide to every other city resident by 2030. Here is the perfect way for the administration to fill an admitted gap in their plan to green the city. Surely our mayor, a man who is in a position of power and wants to run for president, will not sit idly by and allow developers to run roughshod over land with ties to the birth of our nation.

The Juniper Park Civic Association has done its part. Two years after developers assumed control of the site, the church buildings are still standing and a very unwise zoning change proposal for a contextual residential zone completely surrounded by manufacturing zones was nixed. Since the Bloomberg administration supports the creation of additional housing units in anticipation of “1 million more people by 2030” and there will not be housing at the site, they now have no reason to not step in and save this property. The city, by excluding most of the M1-1D zone from the protected Maspeth Industrial Business Zone, has designated West Maspeth to absorb a percentage of the 1 million new people, who will need a park in the area to serve them. Since the land may have contamination, utilizing it as a limited-use site such as a park would be ideal. Many brownfields in the city, including the former Elmhurst Gas Tanks site, have gone through much more intensive remediation than would be required at St. Saviour’s in order to safely convert them into public parks. The Parks Department toured the site with the developer and initially rejected the idea of converting the site in to a park, but that was because they had been told that most of the parcel would be built upon and therefore not available to them. It’s a whole new ballgame now.

Once again, we are calling on our elected officials who represent this area – Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Borough President Helen Marshall, Councilman Dennis Gallagher, Assemblywoman Marge Markey, State Senator Serphin Maltese and Congresswoman Nydia Velazquez – to either push for city, state and federal funds for the purchase and preservation of this property with ties to the very beginnings of American history, or for the land swap that we have been advocating since the start of this fight. The destruction of St. Saviour’s is something we are sure our elected officials do not want to have as part of their legacies and they have the ability to make sure that the community achieves a total victory.