A plan to demolish a nearly 150-year-old church and replace it with supportive housing has been proceeding without any input from Bronx Community Board 1, the board’s chair told THE CITY.
CB1 — which represents parts of Mott Haven, Port Morris and Melrose — didn’t learn about the imminent demolition of the 150-year-old La Resurrección United Methodist Church and the development plan to replace it until mid-January, according to board chair Arline Parks.
At that meeting, local City Council member Rafael Salamanca Jr. presented the plan — to put up supportive apartments for veterans on the corner site at Elton Avenue and East 158th Street — as a done deal.
At the meeting and again in a conversation with THE CITY afterward, Salamanca Jr. said that the Jericho Project, a nonprofit that offers supportive housing to New Yorkers who are experiencing homelessness, met with the board in December.
Parks, however, said the board didn’t have a meeting on its calendar in December, only meeting “to entertain some voting items that we had to do before we recessed and after that there was no other business that took place.”
“What typically happens is, a lot of these developers will speak to elected officials first before they even come into the community board,” Parks told THE CITY. “They won’t even bother to come before the community board because they don’t want opposition to the project.”
“Only if they need some sort of a variance, or some zoning change” do they come to the board, she added. This project, however, appears to be “as of right,” meaning the owners of the property have the legal right within existing land use rules to build the proposed project.
The city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission rejected a petition filed in 2020 to give La Resurrección United Methodist landmark status. Now, the developers do not need special clearance to proceed, from the board or elsewhere.
Even when developers do need special zoning clearance for a project, community boards, whose members are volunteers, have no official powers — but often play key roles through advisory votes to influence major land use decisions.
Parks insists the project’s backers should have come before the board to confer with the community — and that they have their timeline wrong.
The conflicting accounts about whether the board was consulted played out at CB1’s January 26 meeting, and in interviews with THE CITY afterward.
While boards have paid district managers, that position has been vacant at CB1 for about 18 months. Anthony Jordan, assistant vice president for community development at South Bronx Overall Economic Development Corporation, will be stepping into the role starting on Feb. 20.
‘We Need To Fact Check This’
Salamanca Jr. told THE CITY that he discussed the demolition of the church, which hasn’t been occupied full-time in about five years, in an October 2019 tour of the neighborhood, pointing to a Facebook post of photos taken in front of the church captioned “#InTheDistrict meeting with homeowners and residents to discuss ways to improve our neighborhoods and create safer streets for our children.” He said local concerns had mostly been about the prospect of the church being replaced by a shelter, which he opposes.
In February of 2020, the Jericho Project met with CB1’s economic development, land use and housing committee, according to spokesperson Lynthia Romney, who shared a copy of the CB’s agenda showing that meeting.
Romney added that Jericho Project went before CB1 then and again last December as a courtesy, since the group was not requesting a letter of support.
At CB1’s meeting on January 26 of this year, Salamanca Jr. said that the plan to demolish the church had been solidified pre-pandemic, and carried a lot of support — and that the community board had already approved the project.
“This is something that happened pre-pandemic. I forget if it was a Presbyterian church. It’s my understanding they sold that property. There was a lot of support,” the council member said. “They went and presented it to the community board. The community board, it’s my understanding, approved this project. And so, we need to fact check this.”
“They never came before Community Board 1,” Parks interrupted, before Salamanca Jr. went on to say that the new housing where the church now stands would be for veterans and others eligible for affordable and supportive housing.
Parks then stressed that the board has not offered its recommendation on the plan, saying “that is why we have to have the group give us all of the particulars about the project, come before the economic development land use committee so we can ascertain what all the facts are regarding development there.”
‘Didn’t Even Have a Meeting’
“When we came out of that community board meeting, I immediately reached out to them and said, ‘Hey, the community board is saying you didn’t meet with them,’” Salamanca Jr. told THE CITY in a phone call last Thursday. “And they said, ‘No, we met with the community board in December.’”
“And I asked them to return back to the community board and request they make a formal presentation and invite the homeowners there so that they understand what’s actually going to be developed there.”
Romney, the Jericho Project spokesperson, said the nonprofit met with CB1’s economic development, land use and housing committee on December 7, 2022, and followed up later that month with emailed answers to questions that came up at that meeting. CB1 did not respond to those answers, Romney said.
But Parks told THE CITY on a phone call after the January 26 meeting that there was no meeting in December and that she didn’t have any idea who the developer was.
“I can assure you. December, we didn’t even have a meeting,” Parks said. “The community board, basically in the month of December, we only met to entertain some voting items that we had to do before we recessed and after that there was no other business that took place.”
There are no agendas listed on the CB1’s website for December 2022.
According to city property records, 158th Street Partners LLC and Raza Development Fund, a Phoenix, Arizona-based nonprofit community development financial institution focused on supporting Latino and low-income communities, filed a $3.3 million mortgage and consolidation in January 2022 after 158th Street Partners LLC acquired the deed for the property in June 2021 for approximately $2.1 million. Azimuth Development Fund LLC, a construction company specializing in affordable housing, is in charge of building the project.
Raza Development Fund and Azimuth Development Fund could not be reached for comment.
A Long History
The church, originally a German Methodist congregation, was completed in 1878 in an area that was then home to several breweries.
La Resurrección’s congregation settled into the building in 1994, mustering up $500,000 to complete renovations on the grand building over the next seven years, The New York Times reported in a profile of its pastor at the time Rev. Eddie Lopez Jr.,
Another former pastor told THE CITY in a brief phone interview that the congregation moved to New Jersey about five years ago because it would have been too expensive – about $300,000 – to complete needed repairs to the building’s roof and heating system.
Several residents and homeowners told THE CITY that they had seen little activity at the church over the last decade, though groups occasionally rented it as a community hall.
Christopher Pimentel, a 35-year-old homeowner who lives near the church and has been in the neighborhood for 20 years, has been fighting to keep it from getting torn down, noting that even after its congregation left the building had been used as a common space for the neighborhood including for a mayoral forum in 2013.
“It’s crazy, man — that church has been around for a while. It survived basically everything that was thrown at it. And it will be a shame to see it go when there are no community centers in that area. At all. That was like the only one,” he said.
Pimentel sent a request for landmark consideration to the Landmarks Preservation Commission in February of 2020, just as the coronavirus was first showing up in New York City.
“Why demolish this particular building that deserves historical status. I’m not saying don’t build it. You could build it elsewhere,” Pimental told THE CITY. “I mean, this thing is from 1878.”
But the LPC rejected that appeal a few months later, paving the way for the church’s demolition.
“LPC received a Request for Evaluation for the German Methodist Church at 790 Elton Avenue. It is not under consideration for designation as a landmark,” LPC spokesperson Lisa Kersavage told THE CITY in an email. “After an initial review, LPC decided not to continue with further study.”
Neighborhood resident Aarian Dove, 24, told THE CITY he was unaware of the plan to tear down the church.
“I thought they were fixing it up,” he said, noting the fences that have been around the property for as long as he can recall. “It’s been like that for the longest.”
He recalled occasionally hearing church bells on Sunday mornings in his 10 years living there, but said it had been years since he’d seen any of the attendees who traditionally accompany them.
“I just saw one day people stopped going in there.”