February 26, 1986
How St. Bart's lost its landmark case
Guy Hawtin

The jubilation which followed rejection by the Landmarks Preservation Commission of the St. Bart's plan to replace its community house with a skyscraper contrasted with the somber mood in which the decision was taken.

In voting down the proposal, 8-0 with one abstention, the commissioners made it clear that they believe that senior officials of the controversial Park Avenue Episcopal church deliberately set out to bamboozle and mislead them.

Commissioner Anthony Tung, a youthful, bespectacled man, summed it all up just before the vote. "This is such a painful case," he said. "To look at an application so fraught with questionable practices and numbers . . . was frankly dismaying."

It was, if anything, an understatement. Scarcely a single aspect of the church's case withstood scrutiny, according to the commissioners.

There was little doubt about the outcome almost from the start of the public hearing in a crowded 11th floor conference room at the commission's Vesey Street offices—overlooking the historic St. Paul's Chapel where George Washington worshipped.

The commission—which twice before has rejected similar applications from St. Bart's—seemed determined to make its decision as "appeal-proof" as possible. It was a dignified, impressive but utterly implacable performance.

"These people are actually dealing with the issues. They've done their homework," remarked one observer. "Just compare them with the Board of Estimate. Perhaps they should be running the city."

The basic case for the tower was the claim that St. Bart's needs the $2.5 to $4 million a year it would get from leasing the community house site to a developer to run enhanced social programs and still be able to maintain its church building.

It didn't work. The commissioners demolished its pleas of poverty, accusing the church of "grossly exaggerating" the evidence in its favor.

The church, it seems, was the architect of its own undoing.

In its desperation to make its case, it submitted a large number of complex, sometimes contradictory statements which took hundreds of hours of staff-work to unravel. But, according to Commissioner Tung, when the job was over, and checked by an independent review, the church's arguments were left in tatters:

  • Far from being near bankruptcy because of $11 million worth of urgently required building maintenance, the church only needs about $1.3 million for that purpose.
  • Far from being impoverished, St Bart's had seen its endowment increase by more than $1 million to $11 million by investment gains in the past year.
  • The church had even lied to the commission about the needs of its pre-school program, which serves 60 neighborhood children. It claimed it needed space in the new tower to expand the pre-school. Checks with other city agencies revealed that the church had been granted a certificate of occupancy allowing the program to take up to 100 children, but it had never been used.

And so the merciless analysis went on.

St. Bart's opponents were jubilant. Each revelation would have been greeted with cheers and backslaps had they not been Episcopalians and much too well bred.

But, despite the commission's finding, the saga of St, Bart's is far from over. It has merely been elevated to a higher plane.

Long before the verdict was given, Rector Thomas Bowers and the St. Bart's vestry announced they would appeal to the federal courts on constitutional grounds. In doing so, they may draw nearer to fulfilling their own dire warnings of imminent bankruptcy. So far the only winners in this case have been the church's lawyers whose fees are estimated to have reached $1.5 million.