Council rejects designation of Queens church building

Courtesy LPC

Opposition by Grace Episcopal Church to the landmarking of its Memorial Hall only emerged after Landmarks approved designation. On January 18, 2011, the City Council rejected Landmarks’ designation of the Grace Episcopal Church Memorial Hall at 155-24 90th Avenue in Jamaica, Queens. Grace Episcopal Church was founded in 1702 and is one of the country’s oldest Episcopal parishes. The church’s main building and graveyard were landmarked in 1967, and Landmarks calendared the Memorial Hall in October 2009. No one from the church testified in opposition to designation at Land marks’ February 2010 public hearing, and Landmarks designated the building as an individual City landmark in October 2010.

At the Council’s Landmarks, Public Siting & Maritime Uses Subcommittee hearing, Landmarks’ Jenny Fernandez described the agency’s outreach efforts prior to approving the designation. Fernandez testified that Landmarks first contacted the church in 2007 to discuss the possibility of designating the Memorial Hall. Landmarks mailed “several” survey letters and had a meeting with church representatives who did not express opposition. According to Fernandez, the congregation first notified Landmarks of its opposition after the designation vote. Landmarks’ staff thereafter met with the congregation to discuss the designation’s impact on the church.

Grace Episcopal’s Father Darryl F. James, explained that the church did not express its opposition during Landmarks’ public hearing due to a change in church leadership, noting that “sometimes during changes in leadership things get lost.” James pointed out that the congregation’s membership had dwindled from 1,200 to 300 since 1967, and he said the financial burden related to landmarking the Memorial Hall would be too much for the church to bear.

Local Council Member James F. Gennaro stated that the Subcommittee hearing was not about what the church did or did not do during the designation process, but about whether it believed that landmarking would be a burden. Gennaro said he respected the church’s position and asked the Subcommittee to reject the Memorial Hall designation.

The New York Landmarks Conservancy and the Historic Districts Council supported designation. The Historic Districts Council’s Simeon Bankoff noted that while it was important to consider the views of the local community and its representatives, he believed that the City Council should consider landmark designations from a broader City-wide perspective.

Before calling for a vote, Chair Brad Lander said that the Council was not constrained by Landmarks’ guidelines and could also consider the voices of the community, property owner, and local elected officials. Noting Gennaro’s opposition, Lander recommended that the Subcommittee reject the designation.

The Subcommittee voted to disapprove the designation by 6-1- 0. Explaining her vote to reject the designation, Council Member Maria Del Carmen Arroyo expressed frustration with Landmarks’ notification requirements and suggested that the Council consider “fine-tuning” the rules. Council Member Rosie Mendez voted against rejecting the designation. Mendez conceded that the landmarking process may be flawed but said it was the “process we have” and the process that Landmarks followed.

The Land Use Committee approved the motion to reject the designation, and the full Council did the same by a vote of 47-1-0.

This was the sixth time the City Council has rejected a landmark designation since the dissolution of the Board of Estimate in 1990. The Council rejected the Antonin Dvorak House in 1991, the Jamaica Savings Bank at 161-02 Jamaica Avenue in 1992, the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in 2003, and both the Jamaica Savings Bank at 89-01 Queens Boulevard (2 CityLand 145 (Nov. 15, 2005)) and the Austin Nichols & Co. Warehouse in 2005. 2 CityLand 163 (Dec. 2005).

Council: Grace Episcopal Church Memorial Hall (Jan. 18, 2011).

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