DOWNTOWN BROOKLYN — More than 50 Brooklyn clergy members are looking to develop their land and air rights in an effort to maintain their congregations while offering affordable housing and other community services.
Hundreds of religious leaders — based primarily in Downtown Brooklyn, Cobble Hill, Flatbush and Crown Heights — attended a recent conference on “faith-based property development,” hosted by Borough President Eric Adams, to learn how to partner with private developers to build out their parking lots, extra buildings, vacant lots and air rights.
They also learned how to collaborate with city agencies to develop affordable housing.
In recent years, the houses of worship have faced shrinking congregations and financial contributions and are looking for a lifeline from the exploding Brooklyn real estate market.
The effort comes as more than 20 historic Brooklyn churches and church buildings shut down and were converted for residential use over the past two decades.
Organizers see key benefits for cash-strapped churches. The effort would create new affordable housing units, dovetailing with the churches' mission of social justice. The market-rate housing could help fund social-service programs. And any new ground-floor space could be used as sanctuaries and community centers for the congregation.
“You are land-rich but cash-poor,” said the Rev. Gilford Monrose, who directs the borough president's office of Faith-Based and Clergy Initiatives. “The largest amount of housing potential in Brooklyn lies with you.”
Conference organizers offered Harlem’s Bethel Gospel Assembly as a successful example.
Bethel Gospel developed a vacant lot and old school house owned by the church into a $130 million project that produced 47 units of rental housing — some affordable — and 155 condos, which sold for between $1 million and $3 million.
A new church sanctuary on the ground floor is also set for completion this year, according to the developer Holland Consultants LLC.
The building, which has a modern glass and brick façade, is called “Fifth on the Park" and is the tallest in Harlem, complete with a full-length lap pool, landscaped garden, outdoor deck, fitness center and theater-quality media room, according to its website.
Deacon Dennis Mathis, who serves as a chairman of trustees at Glover Memorial Baptist Church in Crown Heights, does not want to see his church disappear.
He attended the conference because developers “have been sniffing around our parking lot and making offers," and he wants to make sure the land stays with the church. The offers have ranged from $250,000 to $300,000.
"I can see us developing affordable housing on that lot," he said. "And any profit made from the deal will go toward expanding our soup kitchen and food pantry and might allow us to add after-school programs for youth."
The Rev. Dennis Dillon, leader of the Brooklyn Christian Center Church, at 1061 Atlantic Ave. in Crown Heights, also has a plan in the works for the development of some of his church's property.
He would not disclose details but said that he had a "huge fear that developers would attempt to put him out of his land, leaving the church with very little."
"That is why we have come to the borough president for help," he said. "We need to organize and come into a better understanding of our divine mandate to own and manage real estate."
Conference organizers set up computers in the back of the room to record contact information for each of the attendees, along with property and zoning details.
Adams plans to present the information about the churches to Mayor Bill de Blasio as potential land that can be used for the mayor's $41 billion proposal to develop 200,000 units of affordable housing in the city.
"People keep talking about the developers that are coming into Brooklyn, buying up Brooklyn and in reality the developers should be you," Adams told the clergy members. "If you have a property that you are unsure of the development possibilities, we will help you figure it out and get your projects off the ground."
Attendees stayed at the conference for more than five hours talking with private developers, architects, real estate lawyers and private investment groups to make concrete steps toward developing their land.
“This is divine time, this is real estate time, this is development time in Brooklyn,” Dillon said.