From left, Council Speaker Christine Quinn, actor Matt Dillon and Councilmember Rosie Mendez denounced plans to demolish St. Brigid’s, the “famine church of Avenue B.”
Fighting Irish: Dillon and Quinn rally for St. Brigid’s, old P.S. 64
By Sarah Ferguson
City Council Speaker Christine Quinn and actor Matt Dillon turned out for back-to-back rallies in the East Village last Thursday to save the embattled old P.S. 64 (a.k.a. CHARAS/El Bohio) where an appeals court just backed a plan to put up a 19-story dorm and the half-gutted St. Brigid’s Church on Avenue B, whose fate is now being decided by the same appeals court.
Dillon has been an avid supporter of St. Brigid’s ever since friends told him of the Catholic Archdiocese’s efforts to demolish the159-year-old famine church last year.
“When I was told they were going to tear it down, I was shocked,” said Dillon, who fell in love with St. Brigid’s in 2002 when he filmed it for a scene in his movie, “City of Ghosts.” “It’s one of the oldest churches in the city. It was built by Irish immigrants fleeing the potato famine, by shipbuilders who were the first longshoremen in New York City. It’s unbelievable to me that the Catholic Church would even consider destroying it.”
Dillon said he was also glad to support the struggle to save the old P.S. 64 on E. Ninth St., located just a block north of St. Brigid’s. On May 29, the Appellate Division of New York State Supreme Court ruled that the city had improperly denied owner Gregg Singer a permit to demolish all but the front facade of the century-old school so he can erect a 19-story dorm.
The 3-2 ruling by a panel of five Appellate justices reversed rulings by both the State Supreme Court and the city’s Board of Standards and Appeals, which found that the Department of Buildings was right to reject Singer’s dorm scheme because he has not lined up any schools or universities to lease the space.
Though the lower court found this “rational,” the notoriously conservative Appellate ruled that the city’s refusal to grant Singer a permit constituted an “an impermissible administrative anticipatory punishment.”
In other words, you can’t penalize a developer for violating the zoning unless or until he actually violates it.
Because it was a split decision, the city has an automatic right to appeal the case before the state’s highest court, the Court of Appeals in Albany. The city last week said it would appeal the ruling.
But the unexpected legal reversal has alarmed neighborhood residents, coming after their successful campaign to landmark the old P.S. 64 last year. And it’s made the made the fight to save St. Brigid’s feel all the more uncertain.
The normally boastful Singer did not return calls from The Villager seeking comment. But his attorney Jeffrey Glen said that since Singer submitted his dorm permit application before the school was landmarked, the landmarking should be moot.
Preservationists worry that if Singer prevails it could open the door for more oversized buildings across the city.
'TEARING DOWN OUR HISTORY'
Standing outside the old P.S. 64, Dillon reflected the concerns of many when he remarked, “As a New Yorker, I’m really troubled by the wholesale slaughter that’s going on. They’re tearing down our history,” he said, adding, “If the city keeps going the way it’s going, with all this new development, it’s going to end up looking like Toronto.”
Thanks to the bulwark of scaffolding now encasing the old P.S. 64, the rally to save the school was held in front of the neighboring Christodora House a swank condo building that became a hated symbol of East Village gentrification in the 1980s, but has since become a headquarters for the campaign to save the old P.S. 64 from dorm-ification.
Quinn gamely climbed up on a chair in her 2-inch heels to address the diverse crowd, standing before a backdrop of Andy Warhol-esque blowups of the late Armando Perez, who helped found the CHARAS/El Bohio community center that occupied the old P.S. 64 for 22 years before the building was sold at auction to Singer.
Quinn seemed a bit confused about which East Village icon she was advocating for as she urged fans of the old P.S. 64 not to “lose this important religious resource and this important bit of history about what the Irish community has brought to our city.”
She was on firmer ground when she stood in front of the battered but still elegant St. Brigid’s, telling its supporters: “Whether it’s CHARAS or St. Brigid’s or a long other list of things, this neighborhood has a proven record that when it stands together, the Lower East Side almost always wins.
But that word “almost” was hard to ignore, given the breakneck pace of redevelopment on the L.E.S. these days. And though Quinn pledged “the full resources of the City Council” going so far as to offer to file an amicus brief in support of the parishioners’ lawsuit to block the church’s demolition that offer felt a bit thin considering that the case was being heard by the Appellate Division the next day.
Quinn may have the mayor’s ear on many things, but she has not convinced the Bloomberg administration to speak out on St. Brigid’s to help stave off the wrecking ball.
In January, the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission declined to even hear St. Brigid’s case, citing concerns about the church’s “structural instability” as well past alterations like the removal of the church spires in 1962 which the L.P.C. said had compromised its “historic integrity.”
“I am confident we will win the battle to save St. Brigid’s,” Quinn told supporters at the rally. But in an interview, she conceded the fates of both St. Brigid’s and the old P.S. 64 are now out of her hands. “Both matters are in court,” she said. “Unfortunately, on either item, there’s nothing we can do directly legislatively.”
Quinn seemed a bit more forceful when asked about the fight to block Singer’s dorm plan.
“I’ve had conversations with Deputy Mayor Doctoroff and the Mayor’s Office, and they are really as angry at the landlord as we are,” Quinn said of Singer. “This is a situation where we’re going to have to think creatively if need be,” Quinn added, though she did not elaborate further.
East Village City Councilmember Rosie Mendez said she’d also been in contact with the Mayor’s Office regarding the old P.S. 64.
“We are going to take this fight to Albany and win!” she proclaimed to loud cheers.
ST. BRIGID'S LAST PRAYER
In its current appeal, the Committee to Save St. Brigid’s has received some high-powered backing from law firm Holland & Knight, which took the case pro bono. In court last Friday, a couple of the Appellate justices appeared intrigued by the parishioners’ claim that the Archdiocese had violated the state law governing nonprofit religious corporations by applying for a demolition permit without convening a proper vote by the parish’s board of trustees.
But this is the same Appellate court that rejected the parishioners’ previous suit to stop the demolition. And the courts have consistently declined to intervene in numerous other church closures. (A State Supreme Court judge just ruled last Thursday that the Archdiocese has the right to shutter Our Lady of Vilnius, a historic Lithuanian church on Broome St.)
The Appellate is expected to rule on St. Brigid’s at the end of June.
Archdiocese officials maintain that St. Brigid’s must come down because its rear wall is in danger of collapse.
“Past efforts to save it have failed, so there’s no guarantee that even if we put in $7 million to $10 million to fix that up, it would work,” explained Joseph Zwilling, the Archdiocese’s spokesperson.
Zwilling denied persistent rumors that the property, which borders Tompkins Square Park, is being cleared for condos. He said the land would be used for “some form of Catholic ministry” and insisted the Archdiocese had no intention of selling it.
“We have no plans to sell the site, we’re not in discussions to sell the site, and we are not entertaining any offers to sell the site,” Zwilling told The Villager.
Zwilling said the Archdiocese was still considering an offer by Cabrini, which is run by a Catholic order, to lease the land to relocate the nursing home for seniors that it currently runs on E. Fifth St. “But that is far from a done deal, and there is no way of knowing at this point whether that will happen,” Zwilling said.
Zwilling conceded that the Archdiocese has sold church properties in the past, such as St. Ann’s Church on E. 12th St., on the former site of which a 26-story New York University dorm is being built.
“There are some within the Archdiocese who feel that was a mistake,” Zwilling allowed of the St. Ann’s sale. “Upon working through our realignment, Cardinal Egan has made it absolutely clear he does not want to sell church properties, because at the rate of change in this city, where there’s not a need for a Catholic property today, there may well be one in the future,” he elaborated. “But once you sell it, it’s gone forever.”
Of course, once you tear down a 159-year-old church, that’s also gone forever. That’s why Dillon and so many others from the East Village and beyond are rallying at the 11th hour to try and save it.
Also speaking out last Thursday was would-be horse racing mogul Karl O’Farrell, who’s said he’d been lobbying friends in Ireland and the new Irish government to intervene.
After the rally, Dillon lingered for nearly an hour as he waxed on about St. Brigid’s uniqueness and “minimalist” beauty, at one point throwing his arm around a Channel 2 news cameraman to show him the best angle to capture the cathedral.
“There’s a kind of spiritual energy that’s attached with this church. Something that’s very soulful,” offered Dillon. “It’s more than any church that I’ve been around. Every time I come here, I’m more impressed by just how beautiful it is,” explained the actor, who also filmed “The Saint of Fort Washington” in a squat around the corner from St. Brigid’s.
“There’s nothing ostentatious about this church. But there’s something very elegant,” Dillon continued. “It was designed by a famous architect. It reflects the poor immigrants who came here. They built it the best they could. It should be preserved to tell that history, just like Ellis Island.”
Noting the offer made last year by an anonymous donor to buy and repair the church, Dillon urged the Archdiocese to reconsider: “I think they should turn it into a museum to celebrate the Catholic immigrants who came here, starting from the Irish people who built it, all the way through the Eastern Europeans and ending with the Puerto Rican community.
“It could become something that’s in every New York City guidebook a must-see destination like Mission Dolores in San Francisco and add a richness to Catholic New York and the whole of the city.”
Zwilling dismissed Dillon’s pitch as impractical: “As lovely as museums are, we don’t believe it would be the best possible use of that land because it would not be a direct form of ministry.”
But Dillon says it’s the Archdiocese that’s overlooking St. Brigid’s true value. “It’s not just the Catholic history that’s worth saving, it’s the aesthetic beauty of St. Brigid’s,” he said in earnest. “The city needs this.”