Pastor, city square off over church parking lot

Pastor David Serrano inside Thessalonica Christian Church. Photo: Joe Hirsch

A protracted rift between a Mott Haven church and the housing department over the fate of a city-owned parking lot boiled over when a developer and a housing official clashed with the church’s popular pastor at a meeting of Community Board 1.

The board voted down a proposal for an 11-story building with 169 apartments, a supermarket and a community facility at its Dec. 21 meeting when Pastor David Serrano of Thessalonica Christian Church urged them to reject it and instead consider the church’s own efforts to develop the lot.

The Community Builders, a Massachusetts-based developer, wants to build on the dirt-surface lot at the corner of St. Ann’s Avenue and East 142nd Street. Apartments would be priced between 20 and 80 percent of the Area Median Income (AMI), which in 2017 was $95,400 for a family of four living in New York City, for example. BronxWorks, a Grand Concourse-based nonprofit that provides job training, senior services and youth programs, would also have operations on site. Thirty percent of the apartments would be set aside for formerly homeless families, and 5 percent for the disabled.

The meeting was the first phase of the project’s Uniform Land Use Review Process (ULURP), to allow for the lot to be rezoned. Serrano told Board 1 that his church first asked the Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) for permission to build there 25 years ago, adding that the housing department has used stall tactics to put them off. Ted Weinstein, HPD’s director of Bronx planning, countered that Thessalonica has been a difficult partner, missing deadlines to find a qualified developer and submit a realistic plan.

“Don’t go into this project today,” Serrano pleaded. “Give me six months. We’re going to do a building better than this.”

“There is a history related to the project going back 20 years,” countered Weinstein, adding that the pastor’s characterization of the city as inflexible was “just not accurate at all. We’re happy to work with them if they come with an experienced developer.” Turning to Serrano, he said, “Pastor we waited, waited, waited, it never worked out. We can’t wait any longer.”

In voting the project down, angry board members said that they would support it only if the developer collaborates on it with Thessalonica.

“Why can’t there be a partnership that would please everybody,” said Board 1 member John Johnson.

The parking lot at the corner of East 142nd Street and St. Ann’s Avenue.

Community Builders’ Senior Project Manager Desiree Anderpont responded that she would be willing to talk to the church, but cautioned, “Do I know what that’s going to look like? No.”

“That’s diversionary tactics to me,” Johnson shot back. “If you can’t work with the church, you should say ‘we can’t work with the church.’”

Board members also complained that the city and developers routinely promise to hire local workers when seeking approval of a development project, but that the promise is never kept. Youth organizer and former school board head Hakiem Yahmadi recalled a recent job recruitment event organized by the city and a developer at the Community Board 1 office, where “Kids sat here from 10 to five. They met with the contractor. Not one of them who came here got a job.”

When board members complained that BronxWorks has a poor track record serving residents who need good jobs and social services, the organization’s Assistant Executive Director Scott Auwarter argued that BronxWorks “has also been in this community for many years. We’re an organization that does what it says it’s going to do.”

Sitting inside Thessalonica Christian Church a few days later, Serrano said that the church’s proposal a decade ago for a five-story building with 86 apartments and senior services “was going to bless this community. We’re part of the community. If these people from Boston or wherever they come from [are ultimately granted approval to develop], where’s the money going to go?”

He expressed gratitude that Board 1 is siding with him, but was skeptical that the city would change its mind. “The interest of the developer is to make money. They’re not going to give us a percentage of the income to be on the deed.”

In the next phase of ULURP, Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. will consider the Community Builders’ proposal, along with a letter from Community Board 1’s Dstrict Manager Cedric Loftin urging him to reject it and instead call for the developer to collaborate with the church. The board’s vote is advisory only.