Since the last issue of the Juniper Berry, St. Saviour's has seen some dark days. In February, a ray of hope was found, only to fade when an apparent lie was uncovered.
On December 12th, the parsonage on the property, believed to have been built in 1849 and designed by Richard Upjohn, was demolished in about 2 hours. The demolition company responsible for this, Always Fast, was issued a violation for mechanical demolition without a permit. (In Queens County, demolitions must be performed manually unless a special permit for heavy equipment is applied for and issued.)
At this point, we wondered why the parsonage was demolished, but not the church. The property was being listed as vacant land on different real estate websites with the old asking price of $10 million. In the meantime, the site was being used as a waste transfer station, with outside fill observed being carted into and stored on the property. On January 23rd, neighbors began receiving notices that Always Fast would begin demolishing the church building in 5 or more days. Maspeth Development, LLC had made clear its intentions.
It seemed to be close to the end for St. Saviour's. But the developers still had not taken action. Newspapers reported that they were looking for a new demolition contractor, and the process had been stalled.
During this temporary stay of execution, I began to think of possible ways to stop the demolition permanently. I remembered watching a History Channel program called MegaMovers where large structures were shown being moved intact from one location to another. Although I firmly believe St. Saviour's belongs where Maspeth pioneers originally built it, there can be no saving it if it gets broken up and dumped in a landfill. Therefore, I thought, with the $1 million that Councilman Dennis Gallagher had obtained in the 2008 city budget for the preservation of St. Saviour's, we may be able to move the structure to a safe haven while continuing to advocate for open space at the original site. The question was to where would we move it?
The only open spaces in the area that I could think of that would be able to accommodate the church were cemeteries. Mount Olivet Cemetery would have been an ideal location, as James Maurice founded it in 1850 and intended it to be the final resting place for the parishioners of St. Saviour's. The Maurice, Van Cott and Furman families, all founders of St. Saviour's, are buried there. Moving it to Mount Olivet would also have kept the church in Maspeth, its home for 161 years. The only problem is that Mount Olivet does not have much space left that does not contain graves.
However, All Faiths Cemetery in Middle Village does have enough open space to accommodate a structure the size of St. Saviour's. Since the chapel on the property burned down decades ago, the cemetery has not had a building at which to conduct services. We contacted Dan Austin, Sr., President of All Faiths, and he was intrigued by the idea of relocating St. Saviour's to the cemetery. He thought of two places that were not suitable for graves and could potentially host the church, which would also allow access to the public for programs and events after the cemetery's regular hours. During a meeting, his board of directors agreed to take the church, so long as outside funds were available for the move.
If St. Saviour's were moved to All Faiths, it would be in good hands. In 1999, the cemetery added an Architectural Consultant and Historic Preservationist to help in the establishment of a Beautification and Restoration Program registered with the State of New York under section 501C3 of the Not-for-Profit Law. The cemetery itself is also a 501C3 entity and may accept tax exempt donations and political grants.
Things were really starting to look hopeful for St. Saviour's. We notified the press and the announcement was made in the papers. People started calling and writing to us excited about the possibility of moving and restoring the church and offered to volunteer their time and effort. We obtained ballpark estimates for the move, which came in at less than $1 million. In the meantime, Assemblyman Andrew Hevesi was making headway with the developer, who could earn a large tax write-off by donating the building to the cemetery. Senator Serf Maltese had earmarked $100,000 in state funds for the restoration of the building. We anticipated our biggest obstacle being the transfer of the money from the city for the move.
Simeon Bankoff, Executive Director of the Historic Districts Council, wrote the following in a letter to Councilman Gallagher on February 11th:
While the Historic Districts Council would greatly prefer to see the Church remain on its historic site, all options must be investigated and All Faiths' generous offer must be realistically entertained. Therefore, we are asking you to work with us and the community to release those funds that would, at the very least, potentially make this opportunity for preservation become a reality.
Time is of the essence if we are to save this important historic building. Please help.
At the Community Board 5 meeting on February 13th, I announced the moving plan during the public forum. I was told by Chairman Vincent Arcuri that it was his understanding that the money had to go through a budget modification in order to transfer it out of the Parks Department's budget and that would likely take a number of months.
I had wondered where Mr. Arcuri got this information, considering that the Parks Department had directly stated that the money was not in their budget. Parks Department Assistant Commissioner for Planning Joshua Laird, said the following at a meeting I attended with others at the Arsenal (Parks Dept HQ) in Central Park on September 7th, 2007:
There is no money for St. Saviour's in the 2008 Parks budget. If there was a million dollars in our budget for this project, I would know about it.
Simeon Bankoff and Tony Nunziato were present at the meeting and recall the same statement by Mr. Laird.
Of course, the money could be in another part of the budget, and it was our mission to now track it down and get it released. We wrote to Councilman David Weprin, Chair of the City Council's Finance Committee, Queens Borough President Helen Marshall and City Council Speaker Christine Quinn in an effort to find the money. None of them responded positively.
Since receiving Mr. Bankoff's letter, Councilman Gallagher has only spoken on the record with the Queens Ledger about the money. On February 21st, they reported:
"Since the money had been allocated to the Parks Department, the councilman said by process it is impossible to switch the funds to purchase the site without a budget modification, followed by a Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP) hearing.
The entire process could take well over a year, and during that time span Saint Saviour's could be demolished."
The councilman's statements are full of inaccuracies. First of all, there would be no ULURP procedure required, because All Faiths has not said they are selling the property to the city. All Faiths is a private not-for-profit corporation, just like the Catalpa YMCA. Gallagher had no problem obtaining $1 million in public funding for the complete renovation of the totally private YMCA, and brags about it constantly. This would be no different.
However, the year-long ULURP process that Gallagher referred to would have applied to purchase of the current site of the church. During that time span, St. Saviour's could have been razed or more likely demolished by neglect as the development company never showed any signs that it was planning to preserve the building as Gallagher had supposedly convinced them to do at one point.
But more striking about the Gallagher statement to the Queens Ledger is that he also insisted that the Parks Department has the money. To quote a follow-up e-mail from Joshua Laird dated November 2nd, 2007, While it would be desirable to have more open space in the area, we have no funding whatsoever to advance the acquisition of this site, let alone future development and maintenance funding.
It became clear at this point that the money Councilman Gallagher had been bragging about since July 2007 never existed at all. We believe Dennis Gallagher claimed to have secured $1 million in the 2008 budget for St. Saviour's because he never thought the building would still be standing at this point in time and would never be forced to produce it.
Gallagher went on to explain to the Queens Ledger that a viable plan to save the church, in exchange for reasonable residential development and public space had been in place, but opposition by a local civic and the Queens Office of City Planning derailed it.
Here, in once sentence, Gallagher managed to make two more misstatements, showing that he is either irresponsibly misinformed, or lying.
First of all, City Planning was not opposed to the re-zoning, and was about to certify it, according to our sources, as well as the Times Ledger and Queens Chronicle. The developers did initially claim that City Planning had been uncooperative, but the agency strongly refuted this. On December 6th, the Chronicle wrote, An official from the city planning department flatly denied that the agency put up any resistance to the owner's plan, contending that the application [withdrawn on November 28th] could have been certified by year's end. One of the developers also recently confirmed to the Times Newsweekly that the main reason they pulled the zoning application was the downturn in the housing market. This explanation makes the most sense, given that development projects all over the city have been put on hold, scaled back or discounted.
Second, the local civic Gallagher referred to, which is obviously Juniper Civic, did indeed oppose housing at the site, but the developers never stated in any way that our opposition was a factor in their decision to pull the zoning change, nor was our opposition being heard by City Planning who was about the give their stamp of approval. Mr. Gallagher seems to think that we hold a lot of sway over City Planning. (If that were the case, we would have had our Maspeth-Middle Village-Glendale rezoning signed into law by now. It's been 3 years and it hasn't even been certified yet.) Apparently Councilman Gallagher is more focused on trying to make us look responsible than on the truth.
Finally, several of the development company's actions make us question not only the existence of the money, but whether there was ever any intent on its part or Gallagher's to preserve the church once the zoning change had been approved. One of the owners told the Daily News last November that housing plans for the site were scrapped because city planning was giving them a hard time over preservation of the church building. The article stated, Planning Department spokeswoman Jennifer Torres said agency officials had asked the owner for greater specificity on how the church would be preserved. We wonder why this question would have troubled the developer, since Gallagher's $1 million, had it existed, could have covered restoration via a nonprofit agency.
Furthermore, the developers left large portions of the building open to the elements even after Gallagher publicly said he had worked out a deal with them to save the building. If Gallagher really thought the building was going to be saved, we believe he would have asked the developers to seal it in order to prevent further damage and minimize restoration costs.
On February 25th, the demolition permit was reissued for St. Saviour's and demolition of the parish hall commenced on the 27th. However, the worksite was shut down on the 28th by the Department of Environmental Protection for possible asbestos contamination. On the 29th, we held a protest with Councilman Avella in front of the church.
We are still hoping to raise the money to move the church and convince the developer to donate the building to All Faiths, but should this vital piece of Maspeth history ultimately be destroyed, Councilman Dennis Gallagher will be the person to blame. There were so many opportunities to save the church and entire property along the way, but Gallagher made sure that they were all wasted because of his political paranoia, cozy relationship with the developers' lobbyist, and personal vendettas against individual members of JPCA.
The Gallagher Legacy will consist of many things: destruction of neighborhood history, dividing our community, overdevelopment, backroom deals, hypocrisy and dishonesty. This is most unfortunate for the people who will have to live with the consequences of his actions ‒ his current constituents and future generations of Maspeth.