The Gospel of Matthew, the first book of the Holy Bible’s New Testament, states “Jesus said unto him, thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.” Powerful words that apparently mean nothing to an Upper East Side church intent on pressing forward with construction plans that neighbors say will destroy their homes and even puts them in fear for their lives.
“The church is upsetting the livelihood of a building that has been the pillar of our neighborhood for 100 years,” explained next door neighbor Diane Forgione, a resident and shareholder of the 125-unit co-op at 160 East 91st Street, located between Lexington and Third Avenue.
“The well being of the people residing here is not worth five feet of space to them,” Forgione said.
‘Them’ is Redeemer Presbyterian Church East Side, a religious organization that is not required to pay income or property taxes, which bought the low-rise rental apartment building at 150 East 91st Street, next door to Diane’s co-op, back in 2020 for a staggering $29,500,000, according to filings with the City.
The church has since demolished the old building at the address, with plans to erect a brand new 12-story facility that fills every inch of the lot’s lines. That mean’s the church’s eastern exterior wall will be pressed directly against the fire escape of 160 East 91st Street, neighbors say, leaving no space for air or light to pass through.
“With the shift to remote work since Covid, many of our apartments have also become our offices,” said Melanie Gersten, another co-op owner in 160 East 91st Street, “we spend numerous hours in our homes and this won’t be possible without access to light and air.”
“I am 56 years old. I just paid my mortgage off. This is all I have financially. The loss in value to my apartment will be devastating [and] will strongly affect my ability to retire,” Forgione pleaded with the Upper East Side’s Community Board 8 Wednesday night to join their cause.
There had never been a problem in the past because the now demolished building that stood for decades on the lot had sprawling ‘light wells’ on its sides — recessed areas which gave its own tenants and residents of the co-op next door plenty of light and air.
“There had always been a 15 foot recess serving as a light well between 150 and 160 [East 91st Street],” explained Gersten, “[the church is] planning to build right up to the property line, blocking all the light and air previously provided by the 100-year-old recess.”
“I live in a 284 square foot studio with one window that faces the church project,” said Forgione, ”I will be completely devoid of light. I will have no ability to open my window and circulate my apartment with fresh air.”
Shareholders of the co-op at 160 East 91st Street has been locked in a legal battle with Redeemer Presbyterian Church — which sued their neighbor last fall, rather than showing love, kindness and compassion — because the co-op refused to provide the access to their building needed to proceed with the controversial construction plans, according to the court documents.
Neighbors are also also worried about an increased danger in the event of a fire, where the a three foot gap between buildings for their fire escape could act as chimney for smoke, turning it a death trap instead of an escape route.
“I am in great fear that if I should ever need to use the fire escape in a fire, there will be nowhere for the smoke to go and I will perish while attempting to scale the ladders,” Forgione explained.
Their pleas to the church to redesign the structure to provide an additional three feet of space between buildings has fallen on deaf ears, according to residents.
“We have been asking the church for two years to scale back five feet of space but they have been resolute from the start,” said Forgione, “they will not give so much of an inch in their plans.”
Now, they are hoping to draw attention to their plight and gain the backing of Community Board 8 in their David vs. Goliath fight against Redeemer Presbyterian Church East Side.
“We don’t think we’re being unreasonable we’re hoping the community board can take a stance with our shareholders and appeal to Redeemer for a light well in their construction plans,” said Gersten.
“We welcome the church’s presence on our block. They will be an asset to our neighborhood,” said Charles Howell, another shareholder and resident at 160 East 91st Street.
“We are simply asking that as a good neighbor they provide a reasonable setback between our buildings to preserve the access to light and air in our homes,” he added.
Redeemer Presbyterian Church’s planned new building at 150 East 91st Street, and its impact on the neighborhood are set to be a topic of discussion during the next meeting of Community Board 8’s Zoning & Development Committee, scheduled for Tuesday, January 24th at 6:30 pm. Neighbors can register to speak during the public comment period by clicking here.
“I thought I’d spent all my working years here, building up my nest egg from scratch. The church project is literally and figuratively squeezing me out of my home,” said Forgione.
“We just simply ask the church to love thy neighbor,” said Manny Gordon, “Love thy neighbor and be somewhat compassionate.”
An attorney for Redeemer Presbyterian Church East Side declined to comment to Upper East Site, citing the ongoing litigation. The church did not respond to our inquiries.