When the pandemic hit, church services went virtual. Some people who moved out of state returned virtually to the church, and people in foreign countries tuned in, said the pastor.
One of the largest vacant lots on the south side of Mount Vernon would become workforce housing, the fourth partnership between Grace Baptist Church and the developer Mountco Construction.
The Grace, a 14-story, 267-apartment building with ground-floor space for church conference rooms, a catering hall and other commercial uses, would rise at Sixth Avenue and Second Street next to the church. Officials decided this summer to forego a long-planned expansion of Mount Vernon’s biggest church after the coronavirus pandemic made clear that worship patterns may have forever changed.
“With this project we’ll be able to satisfy the church’s needs and we’ll provide needed housing for professionals, we’ll enhance the community around us and we’ll energize the downtown area,” said the Rev. W. Franklyn Richardson, Grace Baptist’s longtime pastor.
Richardson and Joel Mounty, president of Mountco, see it having a transformative effect on the city’s downtown and in particular the nearby Fourth Avenue shopping corridor.
“Mount Vernon really needs a shot in the arm,” Mounty said. “There are other projects but this can be a keystone for downtown.”
Plans will be submitted to the city later this summer. The project would need a zoning variance as only part of the property permits multi-family housing.
Richardson said he has discussed the plan with Mayor Shawyn Patterson-Howard. She did not respond to a request for comment. Her chief of staff, Rev. Darren Morton, said he was unfamiliar with the plan and that it would be premature to comment on it until a formal proposal is made.
Church has a history with housing
The project would be the fifth apartment building for the church’s non-profit development arm, Grace Community Development Corp., since the late 1990s. The first was Grace House, with 98 apartments for senior citizens on South Seventh Avenue.
That was followed by three projects in the church’s partnership with Mountco: the Randy Daniels Towers, 132 apartments at 20 East Third; Grace Plaza – the Richard Dixon Tower, 82 apartments for seniors at Fifth Avenue and Third Street; and in 2016, Grace Terrace – the Ruth Hassell Thompson Tower, 66 apartments for seniors on South Fifth.
According to city and county land records, the church bought two parcels on South Sixth from private owners in 2006 and 2011 for a total of $2.56 million. One was a gas station for decades, with the land undergoing remediation to clean up any contaminants. The final piece, on West Second, was bought from the city in 2009 for $55,416.
The three parcels total just under three quarters of an acre.
The plan to add a new church building there had dragged on for more than a decade but it was finally going forward last year. More space was needed because the existing sanctuary seats just 900 for a church of 3,000 members. Having to hold three services each Sunday was taxing on the church, Richardson said.
But then the pandemic hit and services went virtual. What Richardson learned was that many members of the church were content with that. People who had grown up in the church but moved out of state ‘came back’ and people in countries like Australia, Ghana, Ireland and Israel were tuning in as well.
The closure presented an opportunity to refurbish the existing church. It got a new roof, steeple and baptismal pool; windows were reinforced; and new cameras and a sound system were added.
Richardson came to realize doubling the space was not necessary and the housing plan was born.
The project calls for studios to 3-bedrooms for those with incomes between $35,000 and $105,000. Monthly rents would range from $980 to $2,600.
Parking for 130 cars would be included under the building. A rendering by the Manhattan architectural firm SLCE shows large windows on the east side of the building that resemble those on the church next door.
The developers are seeking funds from the New York State Housing Finance Agency and Division of Housing and Community Renewal as well as Westchester County.
There will also be an application to the city Industrial Development Agency for PILOTs, or payments in lieu of taxes. Richardson recognized that is often frowned upon. But if the church had built a new sanctuary, the property would remain tax exempt and the city would get no financial windfall, Richardson said. He added that the catering hall would also bring sales tax revenue to the city