Monday, May 17, 2010

The Story of St. Saviour's: One Community's Battle to Create a City Park

Rendering of St. Saviour's Park created with community input. Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe has said that the Maspeth community will only get this park if they come up with the funding to purchase the property, build the park and maintain it in the future.

By Christina Wilkinson

Back in 1846, the town of Maspeth, much like the rest of Queens, was mainly farmland. It was considered to be “the country” by wealthy Manhattanites who had summer homes along the banks of Newtown Creek.

A year-round Maspeth resident, James Maurice, who happened to be the area’s congressperson, and a well-to-do local farmer, John Van Cott, founded an Episcopal congregation in the area, which initially met in a hotel. It was decided that the two men would purchase and donate a plot of land on which to build a suitable church building. They were drawn to Maspeth Hill, located along Old Flushing Avenue, near the town dock. [The Revolutionary War had happened here; the nearby town dock was the point of entry for invading British troops who ended up camping on and around the Hill during the Battle of Brooklyn. Preceding the colonists here were the Native Americans after whom the town had been named – the “Mespaechtes Indians”.]

The congregation contacted Richard Upjohn, noted architect, for designs for the church building. As it was a small congregation of mostly farmers, he delivered to them plans for a board-and-batten “country wooden church.” The church was constructed by townspeople throughout 1847. In 1848, Bishop DeLancey of Manhattan came by boat to consecrate the edifice, which was then named “St. Saviour’s Church of Maspeth”.

In 1878, Maurice donated additional property around the church to the congregation for a churchyard. The deed came with a restriction that the land always be used for church purposes. This brought the entire property size to about 1.5 acres.

Over time, a lovely forest of London Plane trees grew on the church grounds. A majestic oak tree also grew atop the hill next to the church. Parishioners as well as other local residents were invited by the church to picnic and play on the grounds. Workers from nearby factories would take their lunch breaks here in the shade.

Spanish reales were used as currency in the American colonies and even in the newly formed U.S. through 1830. This coin was found on the St. Saviour's site in the 1990s, along with other metallic artifacts, by Stephen Kelly, a local treasure hunter. Photo by Kevin Daley. More here.

The congregation worshipped on the site until 1995, when poor attendance forced it to close. The Episcopal Church sold the land and buildings to the San Sung Korean Methodist Church in 1997, which inhabited the site for 9 years.

On Christmas Day, 2005, the Korean Methodists held their holiday service and then vacated the premises. The very next day, dozens of bright yellow dumpsters were moved onto the site. Neighbors were not sure what was going on and frantic phone calls were made to area civic groups and the local community board. Those that should have been aware had no idea what was happening. That the property would be abandoned so hastily seemed strange especially since the pastor had applied to the Department of Buildings for renovation permits earlier that same year.

It turned out that the San Sung Korean Methodist Church had sold the property to Foxwoods Development, LLC, in July of 2005 for $6M and made an agreement with them to continue worshipping on site through the end of the year. Foxwoods in turn flipped the property to Maspeth Development, LLC for $6.5M.

The St. Saviour's site in 2006 showing lush greenery. The property hosted 185 trees.

Neighbors sat on pins and needles wondering what Maspeth Development, LLC had in store for the site. They were worried about the potential loss of this green oasis which they enjoyed living near for decades. In March of 2006, a plywood construction fence was wrapped around the property. Things were looking grim.

At a town meeting later that month, the development company’s attorney revealed that it had plans to build 75 units of housing on the site, which of course would have required demolishing the church and parsonage, clearing the forest, and leveling the hill. But it also required a change in zoning, which had to be voted on by the local community board, the Borough President, the City Planning Commission and the City Council first.

The neighbors were understandably upset. The Juniper Park Civic Association stepped in and took action. I became the chair of their Committee to Save St. Saviour’s. Rallies were held, building complaints were called in, a lawsuit was filed, letters to and from elected officials were written and articles were published, all in an effort to save the last vestige of rural Maspeth. Our proposal was that a public park be created on the site, with the church building used for educational purposes, such as a museum.

Maspeth is very underserved by parks. There are a total of 12 acres of parkland for more than 36,000 residents, which is about 1 acre for every 3,000 residents. The City of New York has calculated the ideal amount of open space to be 2.5 acres of parkland per 1000 residents. This site is also not within 10 minutes walking distance of a park, a goal put forth by Mayor Michael Bloomberg in PLANYC2030, his blueprint for the future of a sustainable city. Three major parks comprise the 12 acres of parkland in Maspeth; all of them are geared toward active recreation and they contain only 3 playgrounds to serve the thousands of children in the area. In addition, schoolyards are being replaced with school building extensions, eliminating more places where kids play. Maspeth is also located in what is known as “asthma alley” because of the lack of greenery and prevalence of pollution in western Queens. A 2002 study published by the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority noted that Maspeth is a community that ranks high on the heat island index. This means the temperature is higher in parts of Maspeth during really warm days than the official temperature reported, which happens where there is a dearth of green space.

In June of 2006, a “for sale” sign was hung on the construction fence for the first time. Preservationists sensed that maybe this time things would end differently than they had for countless other outer borough landmarks. It was a glimmer of hope after the City's Landmarks Preservation Commission turned the property down for landmark designation and the State's Department of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation rejected the site for inclusion on the State Register of Historic Places. Both agencies cited repairs made after a 1970 fire as reason for rejection.

Unfortunately, it turned out that the local councilperson, Dennis Gallagher, was working behind the scenes on behalf of the property owners. The development company hired Gallagher’s cronies, the Parkside Group, and paid them $52,500 in 2006 to lobby on their behalf for a zoning change, which was required in order to build housing. The Parkside Group is a very powerful political consulting firm which at the time had been hired by close to a dozen council members, including City Council Speaker Christine Quinn and the Council's Finance Committee Chairman, David Weprin, who have a major hand in approving budget requests. They also were tapped to run Mayor Bloomberg's unsuccessful 2008 presidential campaign. In 2007, the developers lobbied the city through Akerman Senterfitt, LLC, another politically connected firm, to whom they paid $20,111.50.

The St. Saviour's site in 2007 after the rape of the land. The developer cleared all 185 of the trees.

The battle raged on. In July 2007, without any warning, all 185 trees growing on the property were cut down. Councilman Tony Avella, an ally of our cause, found out that Dennis Gallagher was aware that the cutting was about to occur but said nothing. After the deed was done, Gallagher invited the Parks Department to tour the property. They did and promptly rejected the site as a potential park, according to the councilman. Later that summer, the JPCA and other advocates met with Assistant Parks Commissioner for Planning & Natural Resources Joshua Laird. He admitted during the meeting that the area was underserved by parks.

But later he replied to our request in a November 2nd, 2007 letter:

“While the prospect from the site’s upper elevation was pleasing, I must report that we have decided not to pursue the acquisition of the land or the church. From our perspective, the building is too small for the broad scale of programming our agency strives to deliver and would be unjustifiably expensive to restore, particularly given its limited ability to host these programs. The landscape is badly damaged and would also require extensive, and costly, restoration. Given the developer’s housing plan, the land that could be set aside for open space would be small, backed up against rear yards on two sides and would be dominated by the church building which we can’t afford to use or restore.”

At no point did he mention that the entire site was for sale and that acquisition of the whole property was a possibility.

In November 2007, the Department of City Planning notified the community board and local civic organizations that they were planning to certify the developers’ zoning application, which would kick off the Universal Land Use Review Process. With the councilman in the developers’ pocket, passage of the zoning change seemed certain.

December 2007 saw the developers demolish the parsonage mechanically without a mechanical demolition permit. But then they unexpectedly withdrew their application for their zoning change.

In March 2008, after 2 years of constant fighting, the developers finally realized that working with the community would get them farther than working against it. The bulldozers were hours away from leveling the church when one of the owners made an agreement with Robert Holden, the president of the Juniper Park Civic Association, which would allow preservation specialists to dismantle the church structure by hand for relocation to a Middle Village cemetery. There, it would be reconstructed and repurposed for community usage.

(Also in March 2008, Dennis Gallagher resigned from the City Council in disgrace after pleading guilty to 2 misdemeanor sexual assault charges. He had harmed a Middle Village grandmother in his campaign office during the summer of 2007 after meeting her in a bar. This paved the way for the eventual election of Council Member Elizabeth Crowley in 2008. Thankfully, she is working on behalf of the community.)

The dismantling of the church took a little over a month. One of the owners stated at that time that they had a buyer for the property who wanted the land cleared.

More than a year went by with no sale of the property. However, the site had been rented out to a dumpster company who was illegally using the site as a waste transfer station. This had been going on throughout the entire battle, since December 26th, 2005. The Department of Sanitation and Business Integrity Commission were both on the case and issued several fines to the dumpster company and the property owners.

In March of 2009 the Juniper Park Civic Association informed me that they planned to focus on seeing the church rebuilt in Middle Village rather than on creating a park in West Maspeth. But we had promised the people who lived in West Maspeth that we would continue to fight for a park at the site until the day came when the war had truly been lost – meaning that the site had been fully developed. I intended to keep my promise. I resigned from the group in order to concentrate on the park proposal. The Newtown Historical Society, a group that I had founded in 2007, took up the mantle along with the civic organization, Communities of Maspeth and Elmhurst Together (COMET).

The heat was kept on the dumpster company until they finally vacated the property in autumn of 2009. But that foreshadowed the leveling of Maspeth Hill, which occurred during October of 2009, despite the Landmarks Preservation Commission declaring the possible presence of graves and archaeologically significant artifacts on the property. This project had never undergone an environmental review.

New hope that the site would be acquired by the city and repurposed as a public park came in August 2009 when Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe responded via letter to residents’ renewed calls for action at the site.

“We believe the residents of Maspeth would benefit from more and better access to public parkland," Mr. Benepe wrote. "The owners of the St. Saviour's site previously indicated their intention to develop the land for housing and had no interest in selling the land to the City. While we could not justify the forcible acquisition of the site through condemnation, we would consider purchasing the land if the current owners are now willing sellers. In addition to the completion of a rigorous municipal land use review process, this would require specific funding covering the full purchase price of the property, its improvement as a park and the cost of maintaining the site into the future. At this time we have no such funding, but we would welcome allocations from the area's local elected officials.”

While this represented a change of heart by the Parks Department, which previously said they were not interested in acquiring the site at all, Benepe’s letter was very troubling in that he stated that the community and local elected officials must not only commit money to purchase the property and build the park but maintain the site in the future as well. This directive favors wealthier communities. Why is this community being asked to come up with these funds? The decision to allocate Mayoral funds for these vital public purposes should not be based in politics but should instead be needs based. We also notice that other communities that are getting new parks are not being issued ultimatums like this. Park maintenance is something our tax dollars are supposed to pay for automatically from the city's expense budget. According to the City Charter, the Parks Department is responsible for this. It shouldn’t be up to the elected officials in each community to designate regular maintenance as special member items, nor is it appropriate for them to be asked to do so. The truth is that if the wasteful spending that goes on in this city were curbed, there would be money for a new park project in every community with funds left to spare.

Benepe's statement was also disconcerting because it revealed the administration’s preference for catering to developers’ interests at the expense of the greater interests of the community. Right off the bat, the Bloomberg administration removed eminent domain from consideration. "While we could not justify the forcible acquisition of the site through condemnation..." Mr. Benepe wrote. Being that parks have always been considered a public use, and given that the site is now a blight on the community and that property owners tend to inflate their asking prices when in negotiations with the City, the declaration is rather startling.

Borough President Helen Marshall’s office asked the Department of Citywide Administrative Services to conduct an appraisal of the property. They did, but would not release that figure publicly or confidentially to the elected official who asked for it. The market value of the property as listed by the Department of Finance is $2.5M. The owners came back with an asking price of $9M. Not having eminent domain as an option will make negotiation that much more difficult.

The barren St. Saviour's site in 2010 after the parsonage had been demolished, the church removed from the property, and the land was leveled.

We already have donations of trees, flowers and clean fill, but this working class neighborhood needs money in order to acquire the property. It may take years for the elected officials and community to raise the money to purchase the property, however, the owners will likely not keep it on the market until that happens. This is the last sizable open space left in this community and should we miss this chance to create public parkland, another opportunity such as this will not likely present itself in our lifetime.

Understanding that the administration would not be receptive to that argument, I sought out additional sources of funding. My research discovered the Environmental Protection Fund, allocated in part by the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation. I asked the elected officials to inquire about it, and they collaborated on a letter to the State Parks Commissioner, Carol Ash.

Commissioner Ash responded in a February 5th, 2010 letter stating that the St. Saviour’s project would be eligible for the EPF but that due to the budget cuts Governor David Paterson had proposed 30% of those funds would be eliminated from the upcoming fiscal year’s budget and a moratorium on land acquisition would be imposed. The elected officials responded by signing onto letters circulated through both the State Senate and State Assembly asking their leaders to put the $69M back into the budget before it was passed.

In the meantime, the residents who live near the site recently put forth their vision of how a public park at the St. Saviour’s site might appear. At a Queens Community Board 5 meeting on February 24th, a rendering for the park, created in collaboration with area residents, was unveiled by the Newtown Historical Society. The community would prefer that the landscape be restored, with lots of trees planted, benches for sitting and a playground for young children who have nowhere nearby to play. The plan was met with favorable comments from community board members and other attendees. Even representatives of the NYC Parks Department who were present seemed excited by the prospect of adding new parkland to the department's inventory.

Independent Budget Office Director Ronnie Lowenstein on March 4th reported to the City Council Finance Committee that the City of New York would end Fiscal Year 2009-2010 with a surplus of almost $3 billion. Apparently the city's financial straits are nowhere near as dire as had been predicted when Benepe issued his ultimatum last summer. Compared to the more than $100M the Parks Department has already blown on a golf course in the Bronx and $64M they are pouring into an amphitheater in Coney Island, the St. Saviour's project would be a drop in the budgetary bucket.

On March 8th, 2010, the acquisition of the St. Saviour's site was included on the list of priorities of the Queens Borough Board at the request of Borough President Marshall. The Borough President's office has stated that it is prepared to provide $1M of the funding for the site but the Mayor and other electeds will have to work with them to find the remainder. In the interim, the City has indicated that it IS willing to proceed with discussions with the owner to determine a fair market value.

Council Member Elizabeth Crowley, Queens Borough President Helen Marshall and their staffs have done extensive work on this proposal and their efforts are commendable. But we need all hands on deck in order to make this dream a reality. It would be a shame to lose what likely will be our last chance to create a public park in a community that desperately needs one. And according to a listing for the property on a broker's website, that is a frightening possibility.

As for the church rebuilding project, it still has not broken ground despite its first phase having been fully funded by Borough President Marshall and Council Member Crowley.

Christina Wilkinson is a 4th generation native of Maspeth. She has authored pages about Woodside, Winfield, Sunnyside, Corona, Middle Village, Glendale and Ridgewood for the website Forgotten New York. As Chair of the Juniper Park Civic Association’s Committee to Save St. Saviour’s Church of Maspeth, she led a citywide educational effort about the importance of the Richard Upjohn-designed chapel and the historical figures connected to it. The battle drew the public’s attention toward inequities in the landmarking process. In 2007, she founded the Newtown Historical Society and has been its president ever since. Currently, Christina is the communications officer for the COMET civic association (Communities of Maspeth and Elmhurst Together) and is actively involved in many community issues.


  1. this is awesome, great idea, strong community and important article. meanwhile, hudson river park opens yet another section, this one with $50 of public money.
    nyc parks is so discriminatory and elitist it is unreal

  2. Has anyone checked whether the original deed restriction has ever been lifted? If not, the Episcopal Church or whoever originally put the restriction in could begin a reverter action.

  3. Yes we already tried that. They weren't interested in pursuing that.