Air Rights Sale Helps Rebuild Crumbling French Church

By Mathew Katz on February 27, 2014 8:55am 

 The French Evangelical Church will get three floors in a next-door condo development.
The French Evangelical Church will get three floors in a next-door condo development.
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DNAinfo/Mathew Katz

CHELSEA — The crumbling French Evangelical Church is finally getting the repairs it needs.

The church, which is more than 150 years old, has a faded façade and decaying infrastructure. There is no air conditioning and in the summer the sanctuary gets so hot that worshippers need to conduct services in the building's dank basement.

So when the French-language church was offered millions by a developer to repair its West 16th Street building, leaders jumped at the chance.

The church sold its neighboring building at 124 W. 16th St. to Einhorn Development Group for $4 million in 2012, and later sold the air rights above the church for an undisclosed amount, allowing the developer to build an 11-story, 14-unit condo next-door.

Dan Nicolas, a member of the board of trustees, said the much-needed repairs — which will cost about $2 million in all — will be entirely funded by the cash from Einhorn, helping the unique French-language church survive.

Neighbors on the street have complained the sale will allow Einhorn to build a tall structure that's out of place on the low-rise block, but church supporters and Einhorn say the deal will help save the church itself. 

"The timing is excellent," Nicolas said. "The supporting walls, the core structure, it could've collapsed at any time because they were in such bad shape."

The church's congregation, about 100 strong, is made up of French speakers from Haiti and several African countries. It's one of the few French-speaking places of worship left in Manhattan. 

The renovation, which is being planned by architect Rodney Leon, will add heating and air conditioning, reinforce walls, repair archways and ceilings, remove asbestos and renovate rear living quarters for the church's caretaker and pastor. 

The church will also get new paint on the facade and an elevator on the building's eastern side.

In addition, the church will get three floors in Einhorn's neighboring condo development, space that is equivalent to three full apartments.

"We're getting about 5,000 square feet of space," Nicolas said. "We have the option of building three apartments, but church leadership hasn't decided how the space is going to be used."

One floor will likely remain an apartment as a money-maker for the church, but the two other floors could become a "welcoming center" space for the church and surrounding community, Nicolas said.

The construction, which has already begun, is set to have two phases: The first, largely repairs, is likely to finish up by the end of the summer, Nicolas said. The second, which includes enhancements like the elevator, will likely take another year or two. 

"This will really help us create a welcoming space," Nicolas said.

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