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New housing is heaven sent.

While New Yorkers plagued by the housing crunch have not yet resorted to the drastic measures utilized by residents of Cairo's City of the Dead--who built their homes on top of a cemetery--affordable housing developers scrounging for land are finding nontraditional places to create apartments.

One of the strangest of these trends is the movement towards building condominiums and apartment buildings on top of churches. Though many churches, such as the Washington Square United Methodist Church are being converted to accommodate luxury housing, the 82-year-old Presbyterian Church of Astoria is one of the first such projects to create a conversion exclusively for affordable housing.

The church was willing to give up its under-used land both to help seniors stay in their community and to stabilize its finances.

"The fact that land prices are so high puts a premium on excess land. Just at a time when churches find themselves with excess land, it is one of the most valuable assets you can possess," said Jim Himes, director of Enterprise Community Partners, a non-profit financial lending institution that has helped finance over 20 of these projects throughout the city.

The fact that the development will house some of the community elders most adversely affected by the city's affordable housing shortage made the decision to convert the church far less contentious that it might have been, according to Rev. Donald Olinger, pastor of the Presbyterian Church of Astoria.

"Sometimes, neighborhoods get upset when they hear churches are having to turn towards development. We have to look at the realities of what churches are dealing with now. Most of us are facing dwindling congregations, graying congregations. We don't have any choice but to look at alternatives. Our church chose the path that we felt could best serve the community," Olinger said.

HANAC, Inc, a nonprofit development firm in Queens, is down-sizing the church sanctuary to 5,000 s/f and building nine stories of affordable senior housing on top with financial assistance from Enterprise, which stepped in as concerns arose over the impact the rapid gentrification of Astoria was having on elders in the community. The $4 million dollar endowment the church receives in exchange for the building. In addition, it will receive tax credits that will enable it to form a corporation in partnership with Enterprise, which will hold a 15-year title to the building that will ultimately be returned. in a win-win situation, the plan also results in the church getting a brand new sanctuary.

Olinger said that land taxes have skyrocketed since the building went up in 1920 when Astoria was a virtual no-man's land, and that the $3 million it would have cost bring the building up to code with a new electrical system, handicapped access and basic insulation would have sunk the congregation. Likewise, the congregation--whose numbers have dwindled from 1500 members in the late 1950s to an average of 35 who turn up for the Sunday morning service--can make do with a smaller space, he said.

When the church is not bogged down by financial problems, and has more money to work with, it will be able to create more programs in the sanctuary which will also function as a space for community events and gatherings.

"We had to make it clear to the community that the spirit of the church would remain intact," Olinger said.

Goshow Architects is making every effort to keep that spirit, and as much of the original structure, intact as they can. Their job is a daunting one which requires juggling the requirements of the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the State Historic Preservation Office and the church.

Though the design is still being finalized, the team is investigating creative ways to brace the massive stone pediment and arches of the building while razing the building behind it and constructing the tower, making one of the stone walls into part of a garden sanctuary, and saving the church pews and stained glass windows.

They will also create an exhibit replete with old photographs and information about the church's history in the lobby.

"It's a challenging project due both to the negotiation with all the parties involved. More so though, it has been challenging because we are essentially taking down something that has been there a long time and holds a lot of emotion for the community," said Delia Nevola, with Goshow Architects.

"We really sought to respect that and to help the community maintain its connection to the original structure."

When the building is completed, it could pave the way for future church projects integrating affordable housing.

"This is at the forefront of what we are thinking about. We are migrating towards a world where we are thinking about new and creative ways like this everyday to build affordable housing," Himes said.
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Author:Wolffe, Danielle
Publication:Real Estate Weekly
Date:May 23, 2007
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