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Secular salvation for a sacred site Lafayette Presbyterian envisioning underused space as apartments

The sign outside Lafayette Avenue Presbyterian Church reads, "We proclaim hope."

That spiritual message could serve as a metaphor for a bricks-and-mortar plan now unfolding to save the 169-year-old congregation, in the imposing Romanesque edifice that has anchored the northeast corner of the Lafayette-Elmwood Avenue intersection since 1895.

The plan would convert 21,000 square feet of underutilized space in the massive complex into market-rate apartment housing.

The projected cost: $8 million.

That may seem like an impossible dream for an institution edging toward the financial abyss, but the stars may be aligning just in time.

Lafayette Presbyterian was recently added to the National Register of Historic Places, which qualifies the conversion for federal tax credits. More good news arrived Thursday when the New York Landmarks Conservancy awarded two "sacred sites" grants totaling $36,500 to boost the preservation effort.

Those tidings and a pending $600,000 preservation grant from the Environmental Protection Fund should move the project from the drawing board to the fundraising stage in 2010, said the Rev. Drew Ludwig.

The 31-year-old pastor realized shortly after arriving from Mount Lebanon, Pa., in 2006 that Lafayette Presbyterian, like so many urban churches before it, was in danger of folding. The 60,000-square-foot complex years ago began welcoming outsiders -- tenants include the Loaves and Fishes soup kitchen, the Serendipity housewares shop and several recovery groups -- and has become a bustling community center. Yet financial problems linger.

"We still have a hard time making a go of it," Ludwig said. "We've run a deficit for years."

The shrinking congregation, which has dwindled to 100 members from 1,500 in the 1950s, has borrowed heavily from its endowment to meet operating costs, budgeted at $250,000 this year, including "tremendous" heat and maintenance expenses, Ludwig said. The 2009 shortfall will be about $70,000.

But with a rude shove from the recessionary bear market, the endowment, which once totaled at least $1.5 million, has fallen to $550,000 and is in danger of drying up completely in a few years.

Many defunct city churches have found new life in the nonreligious
realm, among them: the Elmwood Parish Commons office complex in the former English Evangelist Church of the Redeemer; Bryant Parish Condominiums in the former Harvesters Full Gospel Tabernacle; Babeville at Asbury Hall arts complex that was Asbury Delaware United Methodist Church; both Karpeles Manuscript Library museums, which originally were churches; the King Urban Life Center that used to be St. Mary of Sorrows; and the Upper West Side Arts Center in the former Richmond Avenue United Methodist Church.

But Lafayette Presbyterian's leaders, determined to save their spiritual touchstone, decided to proactively "repurpose the building to make it work," Ludwig said.

"We did not want to stop being a place of worship and a community center," he said. "We could see the clock ticking, but there was still time to act."

The dire scenario forced the young pastor to take on a role he never envisioned.

"My training is in theology, not real estate development," he said.

Architect Clinton Brown, a lifelong Elmwood Village resident who once attended Boy Scout meetings in the church, was hired to explore the apartment concept.

He developed a plan for 21 units in divergent spaces now occupied by church offices and meeting rooms, a gymnasium, a chapel and a basement kitchen.

"We're standing in somebody's future apartment," Brown said in the downstairs log cabin where his scout troop met. The blueprint, which is still being fine-tuned, would carve out living spaces within the building's existing seams without infringing on the sanctuary, the soup kitchen or other current functions, Ludwig said.

Tenants would park in a new lot off St. James Place and in the Lafayette Avenue main lot, which will be redesigned to include more spaces.

Consultant Ely Mundy will spearhead fundraising for the conversion. Once tax credits and grant monies are in place, the church will borrow against future rental income to meet current expenses, Ludwig said.

No timetable for the project has yet been established.


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