BY SAM SPOKONY | Fearing the same rise in crime that began in the ’90s around an L.G.B.T. youth drop-in center on Christopher St., some Villagers are opposing a local church’s plan to construct a new mission building that could be used as a similar drop-in center.
The proposal by the Church of St. Luke in the Fields to build the new mission center — which would be located at the corner of Christopher and Hudson Sts. — is still in an extremely early stage, and does not yet even have a set timeline for construction. That’s because funding for the project will rely on the church getting approval to build a 15-story residential tower on the corner of Greenwich and Barrow Sts., which still has to get the green light from the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission before it can move forward.
But regardless of the timing, some residents’ negative comments about the idea for a new 24/7 L.G.B.T. youth center — even though church representatives maintain that will not be the only use of the new building — began when the overall development was first presented to Community Board 2’s Landmarks Committee on Jan. 14.
Several attendees that night spoke about their past problems with The Neutral Zone, the aformentioned Christopher St. drop-in center which was open from 1991 to 1995. And committee co-chairperson Sean Sweeney later told this newspaper that he “found an irony” in the church’s suggestions that its plans would help the Village community, partially because of its mission center proposal.
One of the most vocal opponents of the possibility for a new L.G.B.T. drop-in facility is David Poster, who in 1990 helped found, and still runs, the Christopher Street Patrol, a neighborhood watch group.
“We’ve learned from history that this is something that would hurt the community,” said Poster. “I’m sure the church has good intentions, but the fact is that we need to learn from our mistakes. We want to move forwards, not backwards.”
He was referring to the many instances of assault, drug dealing and prostitution that he said took place in the West Village after The Neutral Zone opened its doors — a problem from which Poster and his supporters believe the neighborhood has only just now recovered.
Poster further stated that numerous residents of his Christopher St. building, as well as others in the community, have approached him in hopes of starting a petition against any new drop-in center in the area.
Reverend Caroline Stacey, rector of St. Luke’s, called those concerns “premature and alarmist,” stating that there are a number of different uses currently being considered for the church’s proposed mission center, including services like providing meals for the elderly or creating a more general health-related clinic.
“Plans for uses of the center are still in the exploratory phase,” she said, “and one of the objectives of our process right now is to take stock of community needs before deciding on that.”
But in a previous interview with The Villager — as reported in the newspaper’s Jan. 16 issue — Stacey had seemed relatively intent on making an L.G.B.T. drop-in center the first choice for the building’s use, even while stressing that it could be “repurposed” for those other uses in the future.
Stacey also said this week that she believes fears about security around any new L.G.B.T. center might be quelled if critics were to take a look at the services already offered by St. Luke’s. The church currently has a Saturday night feeding program for L.G.B.T. youth and H.I.V.-positive people that takes place in its private school building and accommodates up to 80 individuals.
“We’re managing it quite successfully right now,” said Stacey. “And whatever programs we do have [in the new mission center], safety and security will be paramount.”
When asked for his thoughts on the possibility for a new drop-in center in the neighborhood, City Councilmember Corey Johnson — who now leads the Council’s Health Committee — seemed to be supportive of the idea, though his language was measured.
“The St. Luke’s ministry is in line with our community’s long tradition of caring for and helping others regardless of who they are,” said Johnson in an e-mailed statement.
In the same e-mail, the councilmember also responded to community fears about the possible drop-in center, while alluding to his disapproval of the St Luke’s project’s main component — its revenue-boosting, 15-story residential tower.
“St. Luke’s is an active member of the Greenwich Village community,” Johnson said. “It is important that when a service provider wants to reach out and help others, we do all we can to be a partner, not a divider, in their efforts to help others. I am far more concerned about the pressures of development than I am over a place [the possible drop-in center] that will offer guidance, help and a future to so many in our city.”