New Housing, Ministry Space Planned for Former Bronx Church Site

New Housing, Ministry Space Planned for Former Bronx Church Site


The site of the former Trinity UMC in the Morrisania neighborhood of The Bronx, left photo, is slated to be repurposed for low-income housing and a ministry space at street level, right photo. Church photo by New York Big Apple Images; rendering by Bronx Pro Group.
A new thing is about to spring up in The Bronx to help meet the needs of the neighborhood around the former Trinity Morrisania United Methodist Church. The United Methodist City Society, the mission partner of  the New York Conference, has signed an agreement with the Bronx Pro Group (BPG) to repurpose the property as a low-income senior housing complex, according to Rev. Dr. William Shillady, executive director of the City Society. The new 13-story building will house 154 apartments, with a ground level space designated for a United Methodist ministry.

The Trinity church, on Washington Avenue at East 166th Street, closed its doors on June 30, 2016. The building maintenance had become too much for the small congregation to handle.

“After a season of prayer and conversation, the church was led to give up their building to serve as a legacy church,” Metropolitan District Superintendent Denise Smartt Sears wrote in an email. “Many of the members have found a home in our neighboring Methodist congregations.”

The City Society has owned the church property since the 1940s, and under the development plan will retain a 25 percent partnership in the new building. The $81-million project is being funded with “tax-exempt bond financing, low income housing tax credits and government subsidies,” according to Shillady. “The society will receive funds from the partnership for years to come.”  

The mixed-use building will be named the Trinity-Rev. William M. James Senior Housing Complex. James led a revitalization of the church when he served as the pastor there from the mid-40s to the early 50s. The street-level space in the energy-efficient “green” building could be home to a childcare center, a senior center, an adult daycare center, or some other creative ministry. Construction is expected to begin this fall with completion in mid-2020.
“This building project will be an exciting witness to the local community, where currently senior citizens are being forced to leave because of rising rents, to New York City as a joint venture between a faith-related partner and a developer; and to our United Methodist denomination,” Shillady said. 

He first reached out to the developers eight years ago when BPG was building affordable housing across the street from the church property. Shillady noticed that above the building’s door lintel was inscribed, “With God all things are possible.” BPG has since built an affordable apartment building next door to the church. During that construction, the society leased land to the development project for a construction trailer and storage site.

According to their web site, the Bronx Pro Group “mission is to develop quality housing that is both affordable and sustainable with an increasing focus towards community building.” Since 1998, BGP, which is primarily owned by the Magistro family, has developed more than 2,000 affordable housing units along with commercial and community spaces.

The scripture phrase, “With God all things are possible,” from Matthew 19:26 is on many of the buildings that BPG has built, and will be inscribed on this joint venture project as well.

Involvement in property transactions is nothing new to the City Society’s work. Throughout its history the society has helped start new congregations with financial support, land purchases, and grants and loans for buildings. At one point, the society’s predecessor agency, the NYC Methodist Episcopal Church Extension and Mission Society, owned 30 churches in Manhattan  and the Brooklyn-Long Island Church Extension and Mission Society owned 26 churches. As time moved on, many of these properties were sold as the congregations dwindled.

In 1983, after Grace UMC on West 104th Street burned to the ground, the society built a new church and apartment building from the ashes. The10-story apartment building provides 56 units of affordable housing and 12 units to house religious workers.

The City Society was also a key partner with Salem UMC to build Salem House, low-income and transitional homeless housing at 129th Street and Adam Clayton Powell Boulevard in Harlem. Completed in 2007, Salem House is a seven-story, mixed-use project in central Harlem that combines commercial and community facilities with a variety of residential units. In 2016, the society returned its portion of the partnership to the Salem congregation under the leadership of Rev. Dr. Marvin Moss.

According to Shillady, the society has worked with Bishop Thomas J. Bickerton and his cabinet in the last year to dream of ways to repurpose properties. That partnership is focused on  ways to better meet community needs as the conference continues to merge congregations and create cooperative ministries. The proceeds from property sales are being used for ministry in the Bronx, Harlem, and Brooklyn, and providing support for fulltime pastors where there had been part-time appointments. Recent sales have funded grants for major renovations in one congregation and assistance for a new boiler in another.  As the City Society sells a property, it also fulfills the unpaid apportionments and obligations of the former congregations.

In 2008 when he joined the City Society, 10 churches were still owned by the organization, Shillady noted. The goal of the society has always been to turn the titles over to congregations that are flourishing and vital.  Unfortunately, throughout the conference there are significant church buildings that have deferred maintenance, unsafe conditions, and very small congregations. There are dwindling resources to assist in maintaining large buildings for very small congregations.   

However, as Shillady says he discovered, the value and possibility of re-purposing these properties is enormous. He uses the term “mission value opportunity cost” to describe a calculation that includes the actual dollar cost of keeping churches operating along with the lost revenue from the value of the property.  If a property is worth $2 million, at a 5 percent return on those funds, it is also costing $100,000 in lost value each year – money that could go to helping people and ministries, and not simply buildings. 

While closing a church is always difficult because of the memories associated with its ministries, congregations have the opportunity to become a “legacy church,” Shillady said. When a church unburdens itself from property, those funds can be freed up to start new faith communities and create vital ministries in new places.

“Leaving one’s ‘home church’ is always a difficult move,” Smartt Sears wrote. “This shift allows the church’s legacy to remain in the community and to serve the neighborhood in new ways. Changing the culture of any institution takes constant prayer, discernment and vision. One has to be willing to take risks to realize life anew.”