One of Brooklyn’s many nicknames is, “The City of Churches.” Yet, as time passes, the general migration of people from one area to another sometimes results in shrinking congregations and distressed parishes. In Carroll Gardens there are several former churches that are now condominiums. In Clinton Hill, one very notable church has taken a different tack.
The Church of St. Luke and St. Matthew is in the process of selling its air rights to a developer who hopes to use them to erect a twenty-nine-story mixed-use condominium on the block. The church, the largest Episcopalian church on Long Island, hopes to use the money it receives in return to make long-needed repairs and provide future stability.
This parish has a long history, dating back to the nineteenth century. As New York City’s population swelled in the early-to-mid 1800s, many residents chose to move to Brooklyn, where housing was cheaper and spaces bigger. Some members of Trinity Church in downtown Manhattan established a Brooklyn church of the same name. After some years, the effort became too great and Trinity church was decommissioned and re-established as St. Luke’s Church. The initial St. Luke’s building was erected in 1841 and was added to over the years. It was heavily damaged by fire in 1887 and razed to make way for the current church, which was constructed between 1888-1891. Another disastrous fire, in 1914, ravaged the new building, and this was repaired and the building improved and rededicated in 1915. St. Luke’s Church merged with another local Episcopal church, St. Matthew’s, in 1943.
In 2012, in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, the church gave its space to the organizers of the Occupy Wall Street event in a successful effort dubbed Occupy Sandy. St. Luke and St. Matthew’s was a beehive of activity, serving as a warehouse and distribution point for Sandy relief supplies and a kitchen for cooking meals to aid the victims and feed the relief and reconstruction workers.
Just before Christmas of that year, on December 23, fire once again damaged the church, this time an incidence of arson, in which someone deliberately poured gasoline on the front doors of the church and set them afire. Two entrances and the narthex just beyond them burned, and the damage from those fires has yet to be repaired today.
The sale of the church’s air rights to the developer, Jeffrey Gershon/Hope Street Capital, would require the buyer to make the needed repairs to the church. Gershon/Hope Street is planning to construct the mixed-use condominium on the block. Given the air rights transfer, the plans are for the new building, designed by Morris Adjmi Architects and to have the address of 550 Clinton Avenue, to rise 312 feet behind the church, on Vanderbilt Avenue, with a five-story section wrapping around onto and along Atlantic Avenue to Clinton Avenue. But, the church has been landmarked since 1981, and according to an article in The Architect’s Newspaper, the developer’s first presentation of its plans to the NYC Landmark’s Preservation Commission (LPC) was met with some resistance.
The commission was unhappy with the man-made materials chosen by the developer to make the repairs to the church, which would be less durable than the stone used to build the church in the first place. A second glitch is in the design of the new building, which the commission feels is not in keeping with the character of the surrounding neighborhood. (This despite the location being about a block from Pacific Park, a new, in-progress mid-rise apartment complex, the tallest of which, to our knowledge, is twenty-three stories.) The commissioners asked the developer to address these concerns and re-present at a later date.
The reality is that large-scale residential development is overrunning Brooklyn like the floodwaters of Sandy, and there is no end in sight. Busy Atlantic Avenue seems like an obvious conduit along which to build, and doing so could avoid, or at least postpone, similar construction sprouting up within already developed low-rise neighborhoods while simultaneously adding value to the homes in those areas.
Perhaps with some architectural adjustments, the LPC will be satisfied, the plans will be approved, the development will move forward, the church of St. Luke and St. Matthew will get its repairs and secure future, and somewhere, someplace in Brooklyn, a small parcel of land will be saved from a mega-construction project that could alter the face of a neighborhood.
Happiness all around, just the way we like it.