Trinity Church Has Its Way With Planning Commission Approval of Hudson Square Rezoning


As we wrote in December’s cover story More Money Than God, Trinity Wall Street is a lot more than just a church — it’s a real estate company sitting on something like $1 billion dollars in New York property — a dual role that sometimes brings it into conflict with its neighbors.

Now it appears that Trinity’s real estate holdings are about to become even more valuable, and once again critics say the church’s pursuit of profit is coming at a high price. Yesterday the City Planning Commission approved a contentious rezoning proposal brought by Trinity for Manhattan’s Hudson Square neighborhood, where Trinity owns some 40 percent of the buildings.

The rezoning would allow 30-story buildings in a neighborhood where most buildings right now don’t exceed 16. But its main effect would be to bring in a substantial residential population as well as shops and services to a neighborhood that’s currently mostly office buildings.

The Planning Commission calculates that the rezoning could produce as many as 39 redevelopment sites in the 18-block area, a net increase of 3,323 residential units, 139,583 square feet of retail use, 139,583 square feet of office use. Also included in the plan is a new school to serve all the new people.

As Trinity Real Estate Pizer puts it, “The proposed rezoning would reinforce Hudson Square as a vital hub for the jobs which are so integral to the city’s future. Adding complementary residential, cultural and educational resources will strengthen the area’s foundation as a flourishing, vibrant mixed-use neighborhood.”

But not everyone’s thrilled. “By turning Hudson Square into the hot new neighborhood with thousands of units of new luxury development, this will put an enormous amount of pressure on the adjacent South Village neighborhood, which city promised to landmark years ago but never followed through on,” says Andrew Berman, executive director of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation.

Indeed, the city’s own assessment acknowledges that spillover development from Trinity’s rezoning will likely have a “significant adverse impact” on the unprotected South Village.

“It’s what we see so often,” Berman says. “When the big guys come with applications to make more money, the way is open to them and it’s rushed through. When the little guys comes to ask for help preserving their neighborhoods, the process moves very slowly if it moves at all.”

Interestingly, in assessing the need for the rezoning, the Planning Commission’s impact study dwells on the charitable works Trinity funds with revenues from its Hudson Square properties. “The Applicant operates direct services for those in need and provides philanthropic grants to organizations throughout the five boroughs to tackle some of the city’s most pressing challenges,” it writes.

That’s not untrue, but the church has come under criticism recently by some of its own former vestry members and parishioners for neglecting its charitable obligations even as its rector is compensated lavishly. As we wrote in December,

With about $1 billion in assets and almost $200 million in annual revenue, mostly from rental income, Trinity’s charitable giving over recent years has nevertheless hovered around $2.7 million–scarcely 1 percent. In recent years, spending on the church’s music programming has exceeded its charitable giving. The church spends nearly twice its philanthropy budget on publicity alone.

That said, even critics acknowledge that some sort of rezoning is probably necessary in Hudson Square, if only to control the proliferation of the large hotels that are increasingly filling the neighborhood. The question is whether the rezoning can be accomplished without doing violence to the surrounding neighborhoods.

With the approval of the Planning Commission, all that stands between Trinity and the rezoning is a final sign-off by City Council, which will hold a hearing in the next 50 days.