A Grand Concourse church’s future was secured by a development agreement for the property.
Following a long legal struggle with the mortgage holder, First Union Baptist Church, established April 4, 1915 at 595 Courtlandt Avenue, will be able to continue its mission at its current location as affordable apartments rise along with a brand new house of worship.
The project is slated to begin later this year or early next.
Under the deal the church, which moved into the former synagogue building in 1977, along with its attorneys – The Legal Aid Society and Kasowitz Benson and Torres, which took the case pro bono, were able to fend off a serious debt situation.
As part of the agreement the church’s debt was retired by Thorobird Companies, an affordable housing developer, and its land title surrendered on the condition that residential development and a 4,500 square foot worship space be built, confirmed the church’s pastor, Rev. Dr. James Wilson Jr.
Wilson said that the congregation responded with “jubilation and joy” when the news was shared.
“We have been under a (financial) burden for about eight years,” said Wilson, who has been pastor for 45 years. “(A) heavy load that was on us has been lifted.”
The church has seen its share of hardships, including a Chapter 11 bankruptcy filing in 2012 and the foreclosure attempt, said multiple sources.
This kicked off years of litigation in both Bronx Supreme and bankruptcy courts where lawyers Susan Chase of the Legal Aid Society and David Abrams and Andrew Elkin of Kasowitz Benson and Torres litigated on behalf of the church.
A deal was agreed to towards the end of 2018.
First Union’s case was taken up by the Legal Aid Society because of the impact it has on its community and the need for affordable housing, said Susan Chase of Legal Aid.
“This is a perfect example of collaborating to build sustainable communities while at the same time protecting those vital institutions that maintained stability during the turmoil of economic and social unrest,” said Chase.
Abrams said it was very important that the church congregation stay in its current location, especially since many congregants are elders.
“Kasowitz Benson Torres is extremely gratified to have had the opportunity to help save First Union Baptist Church in a win-win resolution that will return the church to a sound financial footing and also provide housing to low-income New York residents and their families,” Abrams said.
Thomas Campbell, of Thorobird said the church approached the company in 2015 and told him that they were going to lose their land if they couldn’t satisfy the mortgage.
Campbell, a member of the congregation, said that he met with the pastor to discuss the situation. He feels churches are the bedrock that many communities are built on.
In most cases, Thorobird wouldn’t usually put capital upfront without more definitive plans, but they decided to do so to save the church, said Campbell.
“Our goal is to embrace communities and help them accomplish their goals through real estate, he said.
He said that the project is still in the design stage, but he estimates that more than 60 units of affordable housing along with church space can be developed on the 6,854 square foot site.