Call it God’s fixer-upper — and it’s a bargain.
For just $3 million, you can walk away with the keys to the defunct Salem Lutheran Church on 67th Street between Fourth and Fifth avenues, a sprawling complex that includes the large Gothic house of worship, plus a parsonage, auditorium and gym and a garage.
Would-be buyers have been tramping through the property, which hosted its last service in January — but there are “no bites yet,” said Victor Weinberger of RE/MAX, which is marketing the property.
One reason for the lack of interest could be the zoning — current rules limit any new construction to one- and two-family detached houses with a 35-foot height limit and a minimum lot width of 30 feet.
As a result, the new owners would likely work with the existing structures. If they were torn down, new buildings could only replace roughly two-thirds of the square-footage of usable space currently on the site.
“Financially, [a tear-down] doesn’t make sense,” Weinberger said.
So far, only other religious institutions have viewed the property. “It’s mostly good for the same use only, and that’s who’s looking at it,” he said.
In that respect, the church is in a vastly different situation from the beloved Bay Ridge United Methodist Church, familiarly known as the “Green Church,” which stood at the corner of Fourth and Ovington avenues for 108 years. In September, 2008, at the height of the housing boom, a developer paid $9.75 million for the property, then demolished the stunning edifice to make way for luxury condos that never ended up getting built.
Indeed, the Salem Church could be a poster child for the sweeping 2005 Bay Ridge zoning changes, which downzoned large portions of the neighborhood to discourage developers from tearing down existing buildings and replacing them with multifamily buildings.
Now, Weinberger said, “you have a better chance of winning the Lotto than tearing this down. The building is worth more than the land. Whoever is going to buy it is going to do improvements to the building and maintain it as is.”
That’s good news to local activists who lobbied against the demolition of the Green Church.
“More than ever, we need to preserve the older churches and keep the history of Bay Ridge,” said Kathy Walker, who was co-chairwoman of the Committee to Save the Bay Ridge United Methodist Church. “Adaptive reuse would always be my vote, rather than tearing these buildings down and put up something brand new.”
It’s not entirely certain that the Salem building will remain a house of worship. In some places, churches have become cultural or community centers, or housed commercial enterprises. The Manhattan nightclub Limelight was housed in the former Episcopal Church of the Holy Communion until it closed in 2007. It subsequently reopened as a shopping center.
In parts of Brooklyn and Manhattan, some old churches have been reconfigured on the interior as condos. Included in this group are the Sanctuary, in Fort Greene, where a church and rectory were converted into 13 residential units; and the Arches, in Cobble Hill, where 59 units were developed in the shell of the three-building complex that once made up St. Peter’s Roman Catholic Church.
Salem Lutheran Church dated to 1904, and services had been held at the 67th Street property since 1945. In recent years, the number of worshippers had dwindled to a couple of dozen. But, in its heyday, the church was one of the pillars of the thriving Scandinavian community that flourished in southwestern Brooklyn.