Pray for an angel - Advocates lean on Golden to help save Green Church

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For activists working to save Bay Ridge’s beloved Green Church, the question for a long time has been, “Where’s Marty?”

The activists say State Senator Marty Golden is virtually the only one of the area’s elected officials not to have come out in support of finding a way to save the historic structure, while at the same time making sure that the congregation of the Bay Ridge United Methodist Church gets the money it needs to pursue its mission.

The sanctuary, as well as the Sunday School building and the parsonage – the end building in a row of limestone townhouses – are being sold by the congregation to a developer, Abe Betesh of Abeco Realty, for $9.75 million, pending the demolition of the structures.

Both City Councilmember Vincent Gentile and Assembly-member Janele Hyer-Spencer have backed efforts to keep the church standing, and Gentile has actively espoused an approach that would result in the preservation of the church since the congregation first said it was up for sale, about three years ago.

Right now, efforts are being made to find another buyer for the property, who would retain the sanctuary, which is listed on the State and National Registers of Historic Places.

“We have developers who have shown interest in doing something with the property but they have to deal with Betesh’s contract,” explained Victoria Hofmo, founder of the Bay Ridge Conservancy and a member of the Committee to Save the Bay Ridge United Methodist Church.

Thus, last Thursday, a small delegation met outside Golden’s 7408 Fifth Avenue office with a stack of petitions to deliver.

“He said he hadn’t heard from the community,” remarked Hofmo. “I think if he hears from enough people, he’ll do something. When we were fighting to save the Bennett-Farrell House (on 95th Street), he supported that.

“He could be really instrumental in helping negotiate a better deal that would be a win-win for the community and the church,” stressed Hofmo, who encouraged area residents not only to sign petitions but to email or call Golden’s office asking for his help in preserving the 100-year-old sanctuary at the corner of 4th and Ovington Avenues.

Given the weakening economic climate, “One of our biggest concerns,” she added, “is a hole in the ground.”

Contacted for comment, John Quaglione, a Golden spokesperson, said the senator, “Believes it will take a financial angel to save the structure of the United Methodist Church. Because the congregation cannot financially sustain the church, they have made plans to move the congregation and keep the Methodist faith alive in Bay Ridge. If an individual or a corporation is willing to come forth and make a large investment, they can still save it.”

Indeed, the fact that the sanctuary is still standing is something of a victory for the community, said George Fontas, a government relations consultant for the congregation who lives in Bay Ridge.

The demolition was originally planned for May, noted Fontas, who said that the activists now have till the end of this month to come up with an alternative buyer, because of a meeting between the congregation and Gentile early in May, during which they had agreed to keep the structure intact for an additional six weeks.

“Gentile’s position,” said Fontas, “was save the church and we will go even more full tilt to find another buyer, knowing you are interested in listening to other offers. Betesh is still there, but the church said, give us more time, and he said, fine.”

In the meantime, Community Board 10 – holding their June meeting at Shore Hill, 9000 Shore Road — decided to table a motion that had been approved earlier this month at the board’s Zoning and Land Use Committee meeting.

That motion was for the board to send a letter to the National Advisory Council on Historic Preservation about the church, referencing a regulation in the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966, as amended in 2000, “Which prohibits a federal agency from granting a loan, permit or other assistance to an applicant who has intentionally adversely affected a historic property to which such grant would related,” explained Joanne Seminara the board’s Zoning Committee chairperson.

The Zoning Committee had acted at the request of the Committee to Save the Bay Ridge United Methodist Church, whose members were worried that the developer – by asking the congregation to do the demolition – was trying to do an end-run around the existing regulations, opening a path whereby he could later apply for federal funding to help maximize his profits.

Nonetheless, board member Scott Klein, who made the motion, asked that the motion – made, said Seminara, because “we might be creating time for another use of the church to be developed” — not be acted upon.

“It is unclear, after other discussions with elected officials and members of the community, that this is the action that needs to be taken right now, in keeping the church building alive,” Klein explained.

Members of the Committee to Save the Bay Ridge United Methodist Church declined to comment on the motion’s withdrawal.

Golden’s office can be reached at 718-238-6044 or at golden@senate.state.ny.us.

Updated 3:48 pm, October 19, 2011
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