Our Town downtown
July 10, 2006
Jerome O’Connor went to The Department of Buildings on June 30th to make his case, again. St. Brigid’s Church should not be torn down. This time it seems they agreed.
O’Connor is certain the Archdiocese of New York is not the condemned church’s rightful owner as has been represented in public documents. Before O’Connor left that afternoon, the department revoked the diocese’s permit to demolish the historic East Village church, citing an item of code that requires owners or owner-authorized boards to sign off on any plans, including demolition.
A day earlier, the Committee to Save St. Brigid’s Church had lost its appeal at the Appellate Division of the State Supreme Court. The judges concluded that the archdiocese had the “ecclesiastical authority” to demolish the historic church, and that to intervene would “impermissibly involve the court in the governance and administration” of the church. The former parishioners of St. Brigid’s Church were skeptical. They were skeptical about the archdiocese’s motives when, citing structural damage, it closed the church in 2001. They were skeptical of the $6.9
million price tag the diocese estimated for repair costs. And they were skeptical when the diocese dissolved the parish in 2004.
An entry on the Department of Buildings Web site shows that on September 11, 2003, the archdiocese received a work permit to, among other things, “convert [the] existing church into apartments.”
That address — 119 Avenue B — is the rectory, not the church building. The church building’s street number is 121-123. Although it is unclear whether the work permit is to demolish one or both buildings, the permit supports the claim that investment property was at least one motive to remove St. Brigid’s from the East Village landscape.
O’Connor, a real estate developer, movie producer, writer and former bar owner, is obsessive about the projects he wants to complete. But generally, he doesn’t like to involve himself with committees. It took his friend Frank Murray, a committee member, three phone calls before O’Connor agreed to participate in the fight to save the church. O’Connor attended the NY State Appellate Division hearing on June 13th, and it was there that his suspicions really began to take shape. He felt the committee had made a strong case that the ownership of the building was in question; it didn’t make sense that the archdiocese had been able to obtain a demolition permit in the first place.
The Religious Corporations Law is at the heart of the argument that Harry Kresky, the committee’s lawyer, has been making throughout the proceedings. St. Brigid’s is a not-for-profit religious corporation and therefore not under the “ecclesiastical authority” of the archdiocese.
In other words, it is not the archdiocese’s property to knock down, convert or otherwise alter.
On the NY State Division of Corporations online database, St. Brigid’s is registered as an “active domestic not-for-profit corporation,” and both the church and the rectory are listed as taxable properties on the city finance department’s site.
Another point Kresky is emphasizing is that the archdiocese never formed a proper board for St. Brigid’s, the corporation. Under the Religious Corporations Law, the archdiocese is required to form a board consisting of five members: three trustees from the clergy and two lay trustees.
The archdiocese has not chosen the lay trustees. Even if it had,committee members speculate that the archdiocese would choose lay trustees partial to its own interests.
Something just didn’t seem right about the way the archdiocese was conducting itself, and after the June 13th hearing, O’Connor checked the work permit data on the Buildings Department Web site.
In order to receive a demolition permit, an applicant must complete 20 items on a checklist that is listed online. On the entries for the rectory and the church building, the last four items were listed as “WAIVED.”
The most significant of these items were the required letters from the Landmarks Commission and the title searches, which establish ownership. In order for a building to be demolished, the Landmarks Commission must write a letter to the permit applicant (in this case, the archdiocese) stating that the building is not a landmark.
O’Connor didn’t understand how it was possible not to consider St. Brigid’s a landmark, let alone how it was possible to waive the letter requirement altogether.
St. Brigid’s has been standing since December 1849, and is one of the first religious structures Patrick Keely, a self-taught architect, and (like O’Connor), an Irish immigrant, designed. Built by shipwrights, it is also known as the Famine Church because most of its original parishioners were Irish displaced by the Great Famine.
O’Connor speculates that possibly the archdiocese didn’t want to embarrass the Landmarks Commission by allowing it to become public knowledge that the Commission didn’t consider the building worthy of landmark status – so the archdiocese didn’t include the letter in the application.
“What it says is that [Landmarks] is only around to protect certain buildings,” O’Connor says. (If the church is demolished, O’Connor will get the NYC Irish community to petition for the closing of the Landmarks Commission, he says.)
Who waived the letter requirement, and who waived the title search is still a mystery.
Two days later, O’Connor went to the Buildings Department to present printouts from the Web site. First, he was sent to the Building Enforcement Safety Team (BEST) office on Centre Street. The BEST office sent him back to Buildings, and as he would later write in frustration to Mayor Bloomberg he “became aware very soon that nobody at [the BEST] office wanted to deal with [the waiver] issue.”
He continued to try to get a meeting for four hours, and finally met Richard Rosen for the first time. Rosen’s official title is senior project advocate. His job, essentially, is to respond to customer complaints and requests, usually made by builders and developers, to ensure that certificates of occupancy – the main document that allows a building to be designated for a particular use or purpose – are issued on time. He describes himself as an “internal trouble shooter.” O’Connor explained the Web site discrepancy to Rosen, who then left to investigate. O’Connor says that when Rosen returned, he told O’Connor no one at Buildings was responsible for the waivers to his knowledge, and that he figured they must have been entered illegally in the computer system. He then said it was common to waive these checklist items. He searched for a file folder containing the checklist items and came up empty. A search for microfilm also yielded nothing. Rosen admitted,
O’Connor says, that to issue a demolition permit without microfilm was in violation of the building code and qualified for a revocation of the permit. He suggested O’Connor put his complaint in writing. When he got home, O’Connor faxed his complaint to Rosen and called Rosen to make sure he had received it. This time Rosen said that the folder might not be missing, that it might be in the Buildings legal department and that he couldn’t take action until he ruled that out. He told
O’Connor that it could take 10 days to investigate and that he would get back to him the next day. O’Connor says Rosen didn’t and he wrote about the incident in the letter to Mayor Bloomberg that appeared in Our Town downtown on June 26th.
The NY State Appellate Division handed down its decision in favor of the archdiocese on the 29th. Immediately after, the archdiocese sent Rosen a letter that supposedly established ownership of St. Brigid’s. Rosen had requested this earlier since he recognized problems with its paperwork, O’Connor says. He says their rush to submit the letter indicates that they intended to “go in and demolish as soon as possible.” Rosen read it to O’Connor over the phone the next morning.
The letter proved nothing, O’Connor says. “It was a letter from a bishop authorizing another bishop to sign the application for the permit, even though the archdiocese doesn’t own the property. It definitely wasn’t sufficient.” (The Department of Buildings declined to provide a copy of the letter to Our Town downtown.)
Now, Rosen was saying that he had located the folder and that O’Connor could come to the Buildings office to see it. The title searches and non-designation letters were inside, Rosen said.
On June 30th, acompanied by this reporter, O’Connor went to the Buildings Department intending to look the folder contents over carefully. He hoped to find the Landmarks letters and title searches that were listed as waived and examine whatever else might be inside. On the third floor, he asked for Rosen and Acting Borough Commissioner Chris Santulli, but was sent back and forth between two adjacent
offices. This happened several times before he actually met with Rosen. The constant explanation from the Buildings employees he spoke to was that they were in meetings. He decided to wait it out anyway. When Rosen finally appeared, he would only talk to O’Connor from behind the glass at first. He did show him the folder, but wouldn’t let him touch it. He flipped through it, making marks with a hi-liter responding
to O’Connor’s cool, but rapid questioning.
He repeatedly tried to prevent O’Connor from handling the folder, and at one point, said that this reporter would have to make a FOIL (Freedom of Information Law) request because the case was “in litigation,” and it could take a week before a reply. He also offered the number of the department’s press contact.
I declined and asked him how he could reasonably expect me to make sense of his flip book approach to explaining such a sensitive matter. I asked Rosen for a photocopy, and he said yes, but that he’d have to copy it in another room. This was basically how our dealings continued that day and for the next week. He would say no, I would say why not, and he would say okay after some resistance. Each time I’d get a little
After more back and forth, O’Connor made it into Rosen’s office for a real meeting, and with the department’s liaison to law enforcement present for much of the time, O’Connor looked over the folder and discussed it in detail.
Rosen was now saying that the waivers on the Buildings site were not the result of any illegal tampering, but “a clerical error.” O’Connor looked for the documents that were listed as waived on the Buildings site – the titles and the Landmarks letters – and found only one Landmarks letter. When he looked up the address on OASIS, an online property database, he discovered that the letter was for the rectory – not for the church building.
“The demolition [permit] has got to be revoked immediately,” O’Connor said. By the time O’Connor left Rosen’s office, Rosen agreed to photocopy the entire folder. O’Connor went out for coffee while he did this, and when he got back he met with Santulli, the acting borough commissioner of buildings and Rosen. O’Connor learned that the ten-day letter had gone out to the archdiocese. Although he seemed pleased, he also learned that technically, the archdiocese could knock down the building within that 10-day waiting period.
O’Connor doesn’t think this is likely though, given the circumstances. Even the Ancient Order of Hibernians, a very pro-Catholic organization, spoke out against the archdiocese’s plans to demolish St. Brigid’s, in a letter.
During this meeting Rosen suddenly produced the missing Landmarks letter—for 121-123 Avenue B, the church building. O’Connor now has a copy of the folder. It contains a Work Plan (form PW-1) for the rectory, signed by Kevin Shaughnessy, assistant director of the archdiocese’s Building Commission under the “Owner’s Statements”
section, and numerous letters from the Archdiocesan Building Commission’s director, David Maddox, notifying banks and interested parties in the area surrounding St. Brigid’s of its plans to demolish the church and rectory. In this notice, Maddox claims to be writing “on behalf of St. Brigid’s parish,” the same parish that is trying to prevent them from knocking St. Brigid’s down.
At the bottom of the PW-1 form is a small line of type. “Falsification of any statement is a misdemeanor under Section 26-124 of the Administrative Code, and is punishable by a fine or imprisonment, or both.” Rosen remembers June 30th differently. He says that both Landmarks letters were present when we he met with O’Connor in his office.
Joseph Zwilling, spokesman for the archdiocese, is not indicating whether there is a specific timetable for demolition. “We do not have a [demolition] date,” he said in a July 5th phone interview. “It is still our position though, that the building is a hazard and needs to come down.” He says that there is “no particular reason why lay trustees have not been appointed yet,” and that these two people are the only barrier keeping a proper board from being formed. “We already have a board. The
question has always been the lay trustees.”
An e-mail to David Maddox of the Building Commission was not returned, and an archdiocese real estate officer named Edward Newman declined an interview request saying that everything had to go through Zwilling. Otherwise, he could get in “trouble,” he said.
Rosen finds it odd that the archdiocese was awarded a permit so long ago but still hasn’t demolished St. Brigid’s. He says demolition usually occurs right away. Newman was “agitated about the whole thing,” Rosen said in a telephone interview. He said Newman told him that he had “done hundreds of demolitions and never had a problem. [He] didn’t understand why [the] objection was raised.” Rosen concluded that the objection was raised because of the ownership question.
As for the signature that appears on the work plan form (the PW-1), Rosen says that if someone other than the owner is going to provide a signature they will typically make it known that they are acting as an agent of the owner, and nothing indicated that the archdiocese was doing this.
“Transparency may be an important word in the Department of Buildings, but it’s not in the Catholic Church,” O’Connor said.
As of July 6th the church building’s demolition was listed on the Department of Buildings site as “on hold.”
O’Connor plans to go to the Buildings Department on Monday, July 10th, when the 10-day period ends, to see whether the archdiocese will have provided the proper paperwork, and will have a full board in place. But in the meantime, O’Connor, a man who believes that you either fight with “the gloves off” or not at all, is busying himself by visiting St. Thomas the Apostle Church in Harlem, where a similar controversy involving the archdiocese is underway.
-- Matt Elzweig