Pastor Felix Gross thought his dream of a bigger, better church for his Bronx congregation was finally materializing in 2014, when he signed a deal to sell his church’s two vacant lots to an affordable housing developer for $2 million.
Based on purchase and development agreements, Gross believed that a Brooklyn firm called Brisa Builders would provide a spacious new home for his church as part of a project to construct two apartment buildings on the lots.
The deal would also pay off $150,000 in tax debts that had led to city liens, removing a threat to the church’s ownership of the two vacant lots in Longwood.
And the agreement said that all funds not applied to construction, fees and other costs would belong to the church.
The sale went through in the final days of 2015. Today, two new buildings known as TLK Manor stand on the former lots, with tenants in 83 affordable apartments financed by city and state government housing agencies.
But the ground-level space built for Evangelical Church Disciples of Christ at 917 Westchester Ave. remains sealed, off limits to the congregation.
‘We Trusted People’
The church was supposed to buy back the more than 13,000-square-foot-space for $200,000, regaining ownership of some of its former property. But it is now balking at a demand from the project’s managing entity for $36,000 a year in condominium charges, a sum Gross says it should not have to pay.
And he said he discovered that the church received no money in the transaction, even as amendments to the initial contract he signed ultimately raised the sales price to nearly $3 million. The cost of the church contribution to the construction budget and related expenses depleted all the funds.
Gross says he’s received neither a new church nor any payment.
“We obviously didn’t know what we were getting into or what was being done to us,” claimed Gross, who’s led the Evangelical Church Disciples of Christ in the South Bronx since 1979. “We trusted people.”
In March of this year, an attorney working with the church wrote to Attorney General Letitia James demanding an investigation.
James’ office has not yet responded to the complaint letter, says the lawyer. The attorney general’s office told THE CITY that the complaint and transaction are under review, but declined to provide details.
“Because the matter is ongoing, we won’t comment further,” said Morgan Rubin, a spokesperson for the attorney general’s office.
A Brisa Builders spokesperson said the church’s allegations were false.
“This developer is just trying to do good work and move on, and they find themselves blindsided by these allegations,” said Patrick Jenkins, a spokesperson for the developer.
Jenkins said Brisa Builders had also written to the attorney general earlier this year, complaining that Gross refused to take ownership of its part of the building.
The response from the attorney general’s office, according to Jenkins: “This is not something that we’re involved in. You guys should work this out.”
Carmen Pacheco, an attorney for the church, charged Gross was “duped” into signing unfavorable contracts — first with a former church member who ran a construction firm, then with the developer.
Under New York law, real estate deals involving religious groups are contingent on approval by a State Supreme Court judge and the state attorney general’s office to protect the congregations’ interests. The Evangelical Church Disciples of Christ sale received the go-ahead from both authorities.
But Gross’ deal wasn’t adequately scrutinized, Pacheco alleged.
“These churches are easy prey for developers,” she told THE CITY. “The church leaders aren’t sophisticated and the developer promises beautiful churches, promises them the world, and it never gets boiled down into writing.”
“The church should get its money back at minimum, with interest, because the church’s money was being used to pay someone else’s loan,” Pacheco added.
City records show the developers borrowed more than $30 million for construction from the city Housing Development Corp. in 2016, using the church sale proceeds as part of the financing package presented to agency officials.
In September, Councilmember Ruben Diaz Sr. (D-The Bronx) also submitted a letter to James in support of an investigation, writing that the Latino congregation’s dream — of housing “the sanctuary, community outreach ministries and their well-known theater arts program” in a freshly built church — had become their nightmare.
“The developers used their expertise to take advantage of a church whose unsuspecting nature and charitable parishioners left it vulnerable to the developer’s predatory practice,” Diaz wrote.
Flipping the Deal
Gross’ current house of worship, known in Spanish as Iglesia Evangelica Discipulos de Jesuscristo, is located in a narrow basement of a church-owned brownstone on Union Avenue in The Bronx, where in-person bilingual services resumed in June.
On a recent Sunday, the pastor’s 99-year-old mother, one of the church’s founders, attended along with more than 40 parishioners to hear Gross’ son preach. Then they sang hymns as the house band, featuring Gross on the saxophone, jammed.
It was there in 2012 that the church’s troubles began, when a man named Victor Abreu joined the congregation and gained Gross’ trust, according to the church’s complaint to the AG. Abreu floated the idea of entering a “joint co-development deal” with Gross, involving the church’s vacant parcels at 917 Westchester Ave. and 944 Rogers Place.
Abreu and Gross later entered into a development contract — the first in a series of agreements between the two. A graphic designer produced an architectural rendering of the future church, complete with space for a theater that Gross had long desired.
In a subsequent contract, in early 2013, Abreu arranged to buy the parcels with a $2,500 down payment — on the condition that he could secure financing for low-income housing.
“At the time, Abreu did not disclose to Pastor Gross or the Church members that he was going to ‘flip’ the contract for economic gain,” reads the church’s complaint to James.
Gross said Abreu eventually introduced him to Brisa Builders.
“He brought me to Brisa, to Brooklyn,” Gross said. “I never had met them. I didn’t know who they were and he told me, ‘You’re gonna like these people.’”
THE CITY’s attempts to reach Abreu for comment were unsuccessful.
Jenkins said that Abreu approached Brisa as part of a church entourage.
“The pastor came to Brisa Builders with Victor Abreu, said that Victor was a member of the church and would be part of the development team,” Jenkins said. “And Victor helped the church formulate the development idea and help them put together the package.”
A sale agreement gelled in early 2014. Representing the church in the deal was an attorney named Curtis Wood — introduced to the church, Gross said, by Brisa.
Change of Plans
Planning for the new church ensued during 2014 and 2015, centering on a development agreement between Gross, Brisa Builders and an architecture firm working in partnership with Brisa.
Gross said that he spoke to Brisa executive Ericka Keller-Wala and other members of her family about his desire to house a theater inside his church space. But a theater never showed up in the plan.
What the development agreement did include in the fine print was a reference to condominium charges the church would have to pay — unbeknownst to him, Gross now says.
Five subsequent amendments to the agreement, each signed by Gross and Brisa, significantly changed the plan.
First, the church moved from its original planned location, going from 944 Rogers Place to 917 Westchester Ave. Then, the church became smaller, shrinking from being on the first, second and cellar floors, to only being on the first and cellar floors. And the church’s power to approve or deny the design of the church was stripped away.
Finally, on Dec. 15, 2015, the fifth amendment raised the purchase price to $2.8 million and all but assured the church would receive no money, as it directed Brisa Builders “to keep the sale proceeds to build” the church, according to the church’s complaint.
Wood went that same day into Bronx Supreme Court to file an emergency petition asking for a judge’s approval for Evangelical Church Disciples of Christ to sell the property to the Brisa venture — a deal that he told the court must consummate within a week.
Tax foreclosure could be imminent for the church, Wood warned Justice Elizabeth A. Taylor in court papers — making the sale to pay off that debt and contribute toward a new church space an immediate necessity for the congregation.
Wood called the sale “particularly urgent and vital to the financial health” of the church, saying that it is “almost certain to lose the premise” should tax foreclosure ensue.
Both the attorney general’s office and the judge consented to the sale, after reviewing details of the deal.
Taylor called the arrangement to pay off the tax debt and build a new church “in the best interest” of Gross’ congregation.
On Dec. 30, 2015, with those necessary approvals secured, the Brisa Builders venture acquired title to the parcels.
Allegiance in Doubt
How Wood came to represent the church is in dispute.
Jenkins said that Gross asked Brisa for help to find an attorney to represent the church, then provided a list of possible candidates. “The developer provided a list of attorneys to the church, and the church itself chose this attorney,” Jenkins said.
However, Gross told THE CITY, Keller-Wala urged him to specifically hire Wood to proceed with the sale.
“They clearly suggested Curtis as someone they knew,” Gross said, recalling that he and Wood first met at the White Castle adjacent to the church’s empty lots.
The church’s complaint to the attorney general alleges that Wood “encouraged Pastor Gross to sign all the documents the Developer presented.”
“The Church now wonders whether the attorney’s loyalty was for the Developer rather than the Church,” the complaint continues.
Reached by phone, Wood said he could not remember precisely how he was introduced to Gross, but did recall that they met in The Bronx.
“I think I met him at a fast food restaurant,” said Wood, who’s now retired.
Responding to the church’s doubts about his allegiance, Wood said that the notion was “crazy” and an “absurdity,” adding that he was “flabbergasted.”
Wood said that the deal’s terms should have come as no surprise to Gross.
When THE CITY informed Wood that Gross never got a church, he said, “I’m very, very surprised to hear something like that.”
Brisa Builders has showcased the church deal as a success story.
In a 2017 presentation titled “Mission-Driven Development,” Brisa Builders touted its partnership with the church through the New York Land Opportunity Program, which helps churches team with developers to create affordable housing on their property.
“The church feels confident that upon completion in Summer of 2018, they will feel a sense of ‘mission accomplished’ in so many ways for the community,” reads one slide.
But Brisa Builders has now shifted its tone. Jenkins said Gross is refusing to finalize the church’s takeover of the space.
Gross says he can’t proceed so long as the $3,000-a-month carrying charges will fall on the church, costs that may increase in the future.
“When we came to the Brisa developers, that was supposed to be our dream come true,” Gross told THE CITY. “I met with them. They said, ‘You’re gonna get the church of your dreams.’ We shook hands and it seemed like everything was gonna be great.”
But, he added, what transpired wasn’t great at all.
“This is so painful we almost don’t want any part of it anymore,” he said.