Nabe: ‘save our church’ – Critics refuse to let Green go

By Helen Klein

Opponents of the plan to demolish the Green Church and put condos up on the site took to the streets Saturday morning to de-monstrate their concerns. A group of Ridgites, marching under the banner of the Committee to Save the Bay Ridge United Methodist Church, made the circuit of the block, chanting slogans and carrying signs that expressed both their opposition to the loss of a neighborhood icon and their concern over the reputation of the developer who is in contract to buy the property. Under the company name 362 Ovington LLC, Abe Betesh, of Abeco Management, is in contract to purchase the property – which had been on the market since 2005 — for $9.75 million. Area residents have raised objections to Betesh because of a variety of reports regarding a building his company manages in Harlem, as well as because of things they have heard about other buildings, in Queens and Bushwick, that he is involved with. The congregation voted to sell the site because they believe that the sanctuary is falling down and would require millions to restore; many preservationists and activists, however, believe that, while the serpentine facing stone is crumbling, the structure underneath is sound, and could be repaired for a reasonable cost. “Save our history, save our community,” one sign carried by the protesters read. “Bay Ridge does not want slumlords. Go home, Abeco Mgt.,” read another, while a third admonished, “Bay Ridge, wake up. Say no to over-development,” and a fourth pleaded, “God, we need a miracle. Save the ‘Green’ Church.” Repeatedly, in marching, the protesters passed in front of the venerable sanctuary, which is located at Fourth and Ovington Avenues, and in front of the Sunday school building on Fourth Avenue that is also supposed to be demolished, as well as in front of 362 Ovington Avenue, the limestone rowhouse that serves as the church’s parsonage and which is also scheduled to be torn down. One of the group’s main concerns is that the adjacent rowhouse, which is owned by David and Dorcas Kimball, will be undermined by the demolition, and that other homes in the row may be compromised as well. “We are completely opposed to Abe Betesh. We are completely opposed to the demolition of the buildings,” noted Kathy Walker, the co-chairperson of the committee in a subsequent interview. “We are demanding to be heard,” Walker went on. “We don’t believe the church is falling down. For three years, we have been trying to get the church to understand its options, and for three years, the church said no. There are options. Bay Ridge doesn’t want Abe Betesh. It doesn’t want someone who is going to bring problems to our community. “If it were an abandoned lot, it would be one thing,” Walker concluded. “But, this is a beautiful, old church that is our history, that’s on the State and National Registers of Historic Places. It’s not just an empty lot. There’s the stained glass, the crypt, the children who use the other building – all ignored for $9.75 million.” Indeed, the wrecking ball has swung ever closer to the three structures since the church rejected a plan intended to save them that came about when City Councilmember Vincent Gentile brokered an ar-rangement with Con Edison’s Renaissance Housing Program. The program would have financed the construction of 87 units of below-market-rate senior housing on the church parking lot to generate approximately $300,000 to $350,000 annually for the church, while leaving the property in its possession. The income could have been used to restore the sanctuary and for church activities. By selling the property, and investing the funds not used in construction of a new sanctuary, the congregation expects to realize an annual income of $478,550, with approximately $62,000 going to “local services to the elderly and children.” It will, however, retain only a small piece of the property, on which it will construct a new sanctuary. As many as 50 people participated in the rally, which lasted two hours, according to Victoria Hofmo, the founder of the Bay Ridge Conservancy, who organized the event. “I was very pleased,” she remarked. “New people came forward. There was a mix of ages, which is always good. “For me, at this point, the thing that irks me the most,” Hofmo added, “is that when we had our original meetings with the Green Church’s committee, I wish they had said, help us find a buyer. I think that would have been a different story. We would have had a better buyer. Right now, we have a buyer in court on properties in Harlem, Queens and Bushwick. What is he going to bring here?” Hofmo also said that research done by the committee had turned up several cases of buildings clad with serpentine being refurbished for relatively small sums. One, a Washington. D.C., townhouse at 6 Logan Circle, had been restored for approximately $233,000, she said – way less than the cost of building a new church, $3 million, plus the cost of demolition, and architect an other fees. “Which is more cost-effective?” Hofmo asked. Contacted for comment, the Reverend Robert Emerick, said that the church planned to hire “only the most experienced company to do the demolition,” to protect the adjacent rowhouses, and that the congregation is taking out a “$7 million policy to cover any damage to the home. We want to be good neighbors. We are not callous to the effects of our actions.” With respect to Betesh, Emerick said that the congregation had chosen him, even though his offer was not the highest, because, “He came with a recommendation from Massey-Knakal (the realtor). “We don’t know anything about the allegations,” Emerick went on. “We have heard people say things but we haven’t seen any proof or demonstration that the charges are valid. If someone can show us that Abe just takes money and runs, and doesn’t do a good building job, we would have to look at that.” Betesh, in a phone interview, denied the allegations that he was a “slumlord.” Rather, he said, after his company took over the management of the Harlem building, which is an SRO, the number of violations plummeted from approximately 300 to 52. “I know I’m not a slumlord,” Betesh told this paper. “I don’t think I’m prepared to join this circus that they are trying to drag me into. We managed to get the property into better shape, but my reputation has been tarnished because of the building. The facts speak for themselves.” Asked when he anticipated the demolition taking place, Emerick said, “We just don’t know for sure. Our plan is to proceed the way we’ve already voted. Our feeling is that we’ve had enough discussions, and we think most people in the community share our feelings – It’s a beautiful building. It’s a shame it’s not sustainable, but we have to move on.” Emerick also said he did not know when the closing would be or whether the buildings would have to be demolished first.