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Board Vote on Convent Avenue Baptist Church Was Flawed, Member Says

By Jeff Mays | April 25, 2011 12:11pm

By Jeff Mays

DNAinfo Reporter/Producer

HARLEM — Convent Avenue Baptist Church narrowly won a letter of support from Community Board 9 to build a three-story addition even though some members referred to the structure, located in the Hamilton Heights Historic District, as "brutish."

The chair of the board's landmarks committee says the vote was not conducted properly and that the letter of support sent to the city's Landmarks Preservation Commission should be rescinded.

The original vote on the letter was deadlocked 16-16. One committee member, Joe Morgan Jr., said he was told that he couldn't cast his deciding vote because he was a church member.

But after the vote was tallied, Morgan said he was told that he was indeed eligible to vote because he had no fiduciary responsibilities with the church.

"I planned to vote 'yes' initially," Morgan said. "I was misinformed about my eligibility."

Morgan's yes vote was later added and pushed the measure to approval.

But landmarks chair Walter South contacted Shmuel Gerber, an expert in parliamentary procedures, who said Morgan's vote was actually invalid.

South said he said he plans to introduce a motion to change the board's minutes to reflect what he believes is the correct outcome of the vote.

"It was an honest mistake but ill-advised," said South.

Community Board 9 Chair Larry English said his office has discussed the issue with the Manhattan Borough President's office and the board's parliamentarian and determined that the vote was valid.

"The individual did have a right to vote. As far as I'm concerned, it is a closed issue," said English.

The dispute symbolizes one of several historic preservation issues going on in CB9 as the city embarks on the first rezoning of West Harlem since 1961. Community Board 9 recently voted to remove the Mink Building from consideration as a historic landmark to attract jobs to the area.

Convent Avenue Baptist Church wants to build the addition to house an elevator for its aging congregation.

The $1.4 million addition is made of granite with glass windows in the front. Some board members like South have called the proposal "atrocious." Others said it should be rejected because it does not fit in with the character of the townhouse-filled neighborhood.

The designer of the addition, Rodney Leon of Rodney Leon Architects, also designed the African Burial Ground Memorial in lower Manhattan.

He said the church design reflects an attempt to satisfy both the concerns of the church and the community. The church rejected a more modern glass design.

"You can't design by consensus because it waters down the design," Leon said last month.

Morgan said he understood the concerns of South and other members of the board with architectural experience but that a balance must be struck between aesthetics and the needs of the congregation.

"It's not perfect. I understand the critiques, but I don't think it's atrocious," Morgan said of the design. "When building something new, there must be compromises."