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Lafayette Presbyterian plans to build apartments; To convert large part of its vast building

Financial pressures on a landmark Elmwood Avenue church being shouldered by a shrinking congregation are prompting it to convert a large part of its building into residential apartments.

The Rev. Drew Ludwig, pastor of Lafayette Avenue Presbyterian Church, confirmed that the long-standing congregation is planning to put about 23 market-rate apartments "within the envelope of our building."

The goal is to make better use of the 60,000-square-foot space, while bringing in needed revenue to support the budget of the Buffalo church.

"We're maintaining and heating and insuring the whole thing," Ludwig said. "There are very few urban churches that would need 60,000 square feet."

Under the proposal, the flat-roofed brick building to the northeast of the sanctuary would be converted to apartments, as would the top level of the building behind the sanctuary. Ludwig said the church currently envisions a mix of one-bedroom and two-bedroom units, which would be available for rent by anyone and are not reserved for the congregation.

The number and type of apartments could change as plans evolve, but the congregation will still maintain its sanctuary and the lowest level of the other building for use by the church and the community. Plans even call for "completely redoing" and updating those areas, Ludwig said.

The church already "shares" some of its space with nonprofits and groups such as Serendipity, a thrift store that raises money for people with AIDS, and Loaves and Fishes, a soup kitchen run by the nonprofit Concerned Ecumenical Ministries. Those organizations, as well as community groups, will continue to share space with the church even after the apartments are added, Ludwig said.

The church is the developer for the project, but it has hired a construction manager, Syracuse-based Port City Preservation LLC, which is getting the contractors and financing in place. Carmina Wood & Morris is handling the design work.

"I am just humbled to work with them," said Murray F. Gould, head of Port City Preservation. "They're just such an important part of the Elmwood Village backbone, and they've been carrying the weight of this for so many years with such a small congregation."

The congregation has lined up a construction loan and long-term mortgage from Evans Bank and will also use historic tax credits and invest some of the congregation's money to finance the work, Ludwig said.

Plans call for starting asbestos remediation and demolition this summer, with a goal of completing the project by the end of the year and opening at the start of 2013, subject to state and local government approvals.

"It's a win for us and a win for Elmwood Village," Ludwig said. "This is good for everybody involved."

Lafayette Presbyterian's plan comes as churches, synagogues and other religious organizations in Western New York adjust to aging and declining populations. That includes much less need for vast properties and enormous facilities that were originally acquired or built for much larger communities.

For example, the Lafayette Avenue sanctuary is designed to seat 1,200, but the congregation is now down to about 100, and the parking lot only handles about 15 vehicles. The original church on the site was built in 1895, while the flat-roofed building dates to the 1920s. The congregation dates to 1840 and was originally on Lafayette Square.

"How much space a church needs is a very subjective question," Ludwig said. "After this project is complete, we will still have more square feet than most churches."

The cost of maintaining the building posed a threat to the church's future, although Ludwig insisted that any rumors that the church is closing are not true.

"The church has been for a number of years drawing down its endowment to stay open, and that is obviously not sustainable," he said. "Doing this gets us further away from closing than we've ever been."

Ludwig said the church has considered such a project "for quite some time" and began exploring the possibility five years ago. But "it's just recently that everything came into place in terms of the plans and the finances," he said.