Old Church to Become Community Space

| 17 Feb 2015 | 01:01

    A developer will construct apartments adjacent to St. Thomas the Apostle Church and turn the sanctuary into a community center

    Upper West Side - St. Thomas the Apostle Church has been sitting on West 118th Street empty and useless for over a decade. The 109-year-old neo-Gothic structure was closed by the Roman Catholic Archdiocese in 2002, and has been awaiting a rebirth ever since. Now, local residents are excited to learn that a recent $6 million deal between the Archdiocese of New York and real estate development company Artimus will result in a brand new community center housed in the historic space.

    The church has survived a few demolition threats since it was closed due to its diminished congregation, making it the subject of a landmark preservation debate. Before its closing, the church was only attracting around 250 parishioners for its Sunday Mass each week, a paltry number compared to the 600 it is capable of seating.

    Developers had planned on building a 12-story residential development on St. Nicholas Avenue, but ran into problems due to zoning restrictions. Artimus has promised the community board they will turn the church into a community art space, which lead to approval by the board to rezone the block between 117th and 118th Streets.

    The chair of community board 10 Land Use Committee, Brian Benjamin, said that the board was happy to approve rezoning the block because if they hadn't, some of the original structure would have to be demolished to comply with their plan to add 147 units of residential housing. Seventy four of those housing units will be in a newly constructed building located behind the church on West 117th Street. The renovation of the church itself will provide space for the community center.

    Artimus has spearheaded much of the development in the West Harlem neighborhood; they are working on close to 30 renovation projects between West 107th and 120th Streets. The company plans to turn abandoned or run down parts of the neighborhood, like the former BP gas station on 110th Street and Frederick Douglass Boulevard, into housing and retail complexes.

    Some residents fear that the developers are going to tear down the church and replace it with modern looking condos, but Ken Haron, the president of Artimus, said that won't happen. "We see this as a very important structure of the community," he told the Columbia Spectator. "We were afraid that some other people would just demolish it."

    At their January 30th open house meeting, Artimus representatives told concerned residents details of their plan to turn the church into a rental venue for weddings, receptions, and other events. It will benefit local community art organizations and nonprofits by offering a space to hold fundraisers. Preservationists raised concerns about ruining the historical architecture that the church possesses, but Haron said in an email they plan to preserve "the façade and whatever interior details [that] can be saved."

    Community Board 10 has been very wary of any redevelopment that would negatively affect the neighborhood's current residents. They were acutely aware that major renovations like this have the ability to increase the cost of living, and push out the people who have lived there for many years.

    "We wanted the make sure the community was benefitting in a very distinct way, and this community redevelopment plan certainly fits into that," said Brian Benjamin.

    Artimus has promised to start construction on the church and community center before they construct the residential units. Benjamin said the community was happy with that concession.

    "That is a plus, because we didn't want a situation where they build their own housing units, and then tell us they will get around to the community center when they get a chance," he said.

    There is no set date of completion, but Haron said that the renovation of the church has already begun.