Affordable senior housing to replace 109-year-old church

Affordable senior housing to replace 109-year-old church
Photo by Georgine Benvenuto

Sunset Park is swapping a house of worship for affordable housing, but some locals aren’t happy about losing the more than century-old church.

Founded in 1908, the Zion Norwegian Lutheran Church on Fourth Avenue at the corner of 63rd Street is set to be razed by the end of this year and replaced with a pre-K school and 84 housing units reserved for low-income seniors, but one neighborhood booster would rather preserve the historic church.

“Faith-based institutions and government institutions have a huge responsibility in preserving land for future needs,” said Maria Roca, a longtime resident of the neighborhood and the founder of Friends of Sunset Park. “When we destroy these buildings, we can never get them back. It is a historical building. You have altered the sense of place of that block when you take it down.”

The congregation had more than 90 members three decades ago, but by two or three years ago, it had dwindled to between eight and ten consistent members before the Metropolitan New York Synod, of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, disbanded the congregation in 2014, according to a custodian who has taken care of the church since 1989, and raised his family in one of two attached brownstones on 63rd Street. He was told he would have to vacate the brownstone — which was part of the sale — by the end of the year.

“I was stunned because I’ve been here for 28 years, I have four children, two of them were born while we lived here, and that’s the only home we know,” said Nick Perez. “It’s very sad — the church is a historical building.”

The Synod filed plans with the Department of Buildings at the end of August for the new building, which the project manager from the Fifth Avenue Committee — the affordable-housing developer building the low-income senior residence — said will start construction in December or January, soon after the church is torn down. The nine-story building will include 56 studio apartments and 28 one-bedrooms, with eight of the total 84 units distributed among the two attached brownstones, which will be gutted and renovated, according to the project manager, Michael Rose.

All units will be reserved for recipients of the city’s Housing Choice Voucher program who are older than 62, Rose said, and all tenants will have incomes of less than 50 percent of the area median income — which is $33,400 for an individual and $38,200 for a couple, according to the Department of Housing and Urban Development. A third of the units will be reserved for formerly homeless seniors, he said.

The developers plan to reuse architectural elements of the church in the new building — including at least three stained glass windows in the new residential hallways — and install some of the church’s decorative stone and woodwork and light fixtures in the residential common area, along with a plaque recognizing the former congregation’s World War One veterans and an interactive display on the church’s history.

The new building will be among the tallest in the area, but will still be dwarfed by the twin 811-unit, 30-story Bay Ridge Towers, the two affordable housing apartment complexes just two blocks away, on 65th Street.

The five pre-K classrooms will be built out by the city’s School Construction Authority.

The Metropolitan New York Synod could not be reached for comment by press time.

Roca said that the development sounds like it would be a boon to low-income seniors, but she couldn’t support the project until she knows that the formerly homeless seniors will have adequate support services.

“It sounds like a promising plan, something that the community could benefit from, but there are more details that we need to know,” she said.

Roca also said she worried that the development would not actually end up being part of the Housing Choice Voucher program, which would further drive up housing costs in the area — a worry echoed by another local.

“I hope that if they’re going to put a nine-story affordable building, that it’s actually affordable,” said Shaniqua Ellis, who works in the area.

Reach reporter Julianne McShane at (718) 260–2523 or by e-mail at jmcshane@cnglocal.com. Follow her on Twitter @juliannemcshane.