Deputies vote to sell the church center headquarters in New York

By Melodie Woerman
Posted Jul 6, 2012

[Episcopal News Service – Indianapolis] The House of Deputies today voted to direct Executive Council to sell the Episcopal Church Center at 815 Second Avenue in New York, where most of the church’s administrative staff offices are located. The action came through a resolution proposed by the Joint Legislative Committee on Structure.

The resolution now goes to the House of Bishops for its consideration.

Deputies on the floor removed a requirement that the sale take place before the 2015 General Convention, to give the Executive Council greater flexibility to sell at the best price possible.

The Rev. Gay Jennings, the deputies’ chair of the Structure Committee, said the issue of selling the property has been studied several times in the past, and committee members decided that now was the time to do it.

The Rev. Frank Hubbard, deputy from New Jersey, urged deputies to agree. He said, “815 Second Avenue is the relic of our delusions of being an established church from an imperial era. Constantine has left the building. Unfortunately, Constantine has left us the building.”

Deputy Karen Phillips Smith of Southeast Florida said this was not the time to force a sale, given that the building’s tenants are paying only $35 a square foot in rent. Noting her background in international real estate development she said. “There’s no way I could sell that to anybody.” She added, “I’m not saying not sell it, I’m just saying, not now.”

The resolution’s explanation noted that the building will cost more than $11 million to operate over the next three years. Debt service amounts to $8.7 million, with facilities management nearly $6.5 million. Rental income offsets those expenses by just over $4 million, for a net cost of $11,093,156.

— Melodie Woerman is a member of the Episcopal News Service team at General Convention.


Comments (59)

  1. Peter Tucker says:

    This is long overdue. I believe that the new church office should be in the Northwest, Perhaps Oregon.

  2. Betty Cordoza says:

    This is the first that I have heard of this proposal, so please clarify for me to where the Episcopal Church would move its Administrative Headquarters, if the property at 815 Second Avenue is sold. Or would they simply remain there as tenants in a building they formerly owned?

  3. Peter Tucker says:

    Hopefully not! This is a unique opportunity to end the Babylonian captivity of the church. The GC should seriously consider relocating the PB and staff a mid-sized city such as Dayton, Kansas City or such. Church hierarchy needs to reconnect with grass roots Americans! And, reduce expenses.

    P.S. What’s wrong with Portland?

    1. Terry Kosnick says:

      Why would they not consider moving the church headquarters to St. John the Divine or Washington National Cathedral? Both could surely accommodate the administrative staff and seem fitting considering their religious significance.

      1. J. Harold A. Boyd says:

        Either Cathedral would make a nice seat for the Church’s administrative staff. But as Deputy Karen Phillips Smith of Southeast Florida said above the price we could get for 815 Second Avenue in today’s market is not enough. I’m glad the requirement to sell before General Convention in 2015.

    2. Ian Montgomery says:

      I have found that air travel to a secondary or tertiary city is always 50-100% more expensive than to/from NYC. This usually, for short meeting trips, negates any perceived savings — actually, it usually means that the meeting will cost 50% more.

      Also, greater NYC is a place that many, many people want to call home. 22 Million people as a matter of fact. Contained within the dioceses of NY, CT, NJ, NWK, and LI are almost 1000 Episcopal churches. Would we draw from as talented and diverse an Episcopalian population if we, say, moved to Portland, and either recruited people to live there or relied on those who commute to Portland?

  4. Michael Neal says:

    As a business owner this looks like the death of a denomination……….slowly selling off assets…….

    1. Charles Smith says:

      Businesses have been moving to cheaper markets for a long time. Good business is knowing when you have a useless boat anchor and getting rid of it. This particular boat anchor is long overdue to be dumped.

      1. Wally Wallace says:

        Does the church have another “boat anchor” or do you plan to run adrift?

        1. Charles Smith says:

          Run the numbers. A good case could be made that the church is already adrift as the aging membership dies off and are not replaced. The sort of anchors needed are backsides in the pews, not a NYC building.

    2. Ruth Lindsay says:

      Or we could see it as “restructuring,” which any business facing difficulties must do to survive.

      I think it would be great for our denomination to move to the Inter Church Center on Riverside. We need more ecumenical partnerships.

  5. Jason Moskal says:

    While I do not advocate selling 815 (the church just paid to upgrade the facility), while living in NYC, 815 never had a real presence to evangelize. In terms of our “headquarters” and the many famous and historic churches in NYC, the national church never materialized the opportunity to showcase our church and show what we are all about. In addition, 815 should have been a well-versed resource/evangelism center. I say the admin should have moved to GTS when it was proposed a few years back, and would have sustained GTS footprint but as well secured GTS and the EC with some endowment. I propose doing something creative instead of a quick sale for quick cash…..lets be visionary and come up with a creative way to unburden the full cost of the building and make 815 a shared resource evangelism center(with our communion partners: ELCA & possible Moravian church) to serve the northeast (with expectation of satellite resource centers in other cities throughout the country).

  6. Charles Smith says:

    Why not start walking the walk instead of just talk and put the church on a Native American reservation, whatever location has the highest poverty and unemployment. As for air travel, by far and large get over it. Email and video conference – take the same steps corporations are using to cut travel costs. I would love to see the church center located somewhere where the only airlines available were prop commuters, where there would be significant disincentive to travel when any other means of conducting business were possible.

    1. Ed Adcock says:

      Well said, Charles.

  7. Albert Feix III says:

    Palm Springs, California welcomes the Episcopal Church. Very reasonable cost of living, beautiful climate, and a population that is warm, accepting, and outgoing. Go west!

  8. Vicki Evans says:

    First of all–great article, Melodie.
    Secondly, I’ve always liked the KC,MO site option best. For, let’s see, going on 20 years now since I first heard the issue discussed.

  9. The Revd Sarah V. Lewis says:

    Here’s a suggestion. Move TEC’s headquarters to Rome, NY. Think of the free publicity: “THE EPISCOPAL CHURCH GOES OVER TO ROME ! (Rome, New York, that is).”

    Here’s another, more serious, suggestion. Move TEC’s headquarters to our largest diocese, Haiti. What a statement that would make.

  10. Jon Coffey says:

    I have imagined this taking place for most of the 35 years I have been in ordained ministry. It’s nothing negative about New York, a great city. It’s just too expensive, too far from the geographical center of the American Church and, yes, way too far from the center of a servant church. Congratulations to the House of Deputies, and I hope the HOB approves as well. A moving center is a wonderful vision.
    Jon Coffey, St. Mark’s, Jacksonville, Florida

  11. Peter Tucker says:

    St. John the Divine makes sense. National Cathedral, no way. That area is even more disconnected from America than NYC. The opportunity here is to get them in the midst of real Americans and away from the elitist liberals in the Northeast. We need a centrist perspective and that will not happen in NYC. Minneapolis-St. Paul is another good option. Bedrock America.

  12. Monty Pitts says:

    I think the church HQ should be in California, say, San Francisco. It would be an environment much more in tune with the church’s innovative philosophies.

  13. Peter Tucker says:

    SF is good although ‘innovative’ is not a word I would use to describe the city. Flaky is more what comes to mind. Still, a good fit for the COWHN.

  14. Lynn A. Collins says:

    NY offered an opportunity to be in the midst of the advocacy, and change, but we have lost our advocacy edge, and spiritual compass- so let’s go quietly into the night.

    1. Charles Smith says:

      A good case may be made that one of the reasons that membership, contributions and the lack are in free fall is ECUSA is no longer a church, but a liberal PAC.

  15. Jeremy Bates says:

    Peter Tucker, what exactly about NYC says “not bedrock America” to you?

    The city’s politics? Its racial diversity?

    What exactly is it about Americans who live in New York makes them, in your mind, not “real Americans”?

    1. Mark P. Kessinger says:

      Thank you, Jeremy, for calling out this needless perpetuation of the myth that New Yorkers are somehow less authentically American than folks in other parts of the country. That kind of divisiveness should have no place in our church!

  16. Michael Dombos says:

    Once again, this decision is a short-sighted solution to a longer term problem.

  17. Prof. Harold H. Brown says:

    After 9 General Conventions I have heard this discussion several times before. I have always thought that the Church Center should be on Mt. St. Albans with the National Cathedral. The Presiding Bishop’s chair is there and if we are a “church for the world” there is no more international city than D.C. since it is the home of the embassies of the world.

  18. Br. James Teets BSG says:

    Melodie Woerman’s press release (above) is missing the crucial piece of such a decision to sell the Church Center: how would TEC administratively reorganize itself? That is the “horse” that should be before the “cart” in my opinion! Other responders seem to assume that the PB and the TEC staff would move together to some other location around the country, but that is not said in the release. Since a number of the departmental offices headquartered at 815 now actually function from remote locations, both inside and outside the USA, it seems natural to at least consider a full breakup of all the departmental structures now housed there; the PB could work out of her home in Nevada; the Treasurer’s and the Controller’s Offices could rent an office suite in some low-rent building somewhere else in the country, as could the Office of the General Convention; and the programmatic offices could each be relocated to the homes of each of the staff officers wherever they live. In that way, there would be no ‘central office or headquarters of TEC’ anywhere in the country and all of those who have for many years pushed to remove the Church Center from NYC — for whatever reasons — would then have nothing further to complain about, at least on that topic.

    As to the space and housing issues that some have raised, I have no idea where anyone would think there is sufficient office space available on the grounds of the Cathedral Church of Saint John the Divine in NYC as it now exists. The NY diocesan and the cathedral staffs are cramped into the existing buildings on the Cathedral Close today, and if a new building were to be built to house the TEC staff, that would assumedly use up at least as much money as the sale of the building at 815 Second Avenue could generate. And that assumes that the Dean and Chapter of the Cathedral Church of Saint John the Divine — who is the landlord at 1027 Amsterdam Avenue — would be willing to allow the TEC staff to move there and could find sufficient land on which to build a new Church Center. I do agree that the chance to move to the GTS campus was a very great missed opportunity, but that was then and this is now.

    And anyone familiar with the GCs of the past realize that this effort is just the latest of a whole string of similarly-voiced desires to “move the Church Center out of NYC to the heart of the country” — all of which have failed. Indeed, while NYC is not geographically the center of the nation, when you begin to add up all the Episcopalians living in CT, New York State and New Jersey, that sure looks like “the heart of The Episcopal Church” to me! Why anyone would think that moving our denominational headquarters to a small town somewhere in mid-America would be an improvement, either to the Mission of the Church or to its visibility and functionality, has always been beyond me!

    1. Br. James, thank you for making any number of salient points. About the time, I was appointed in September of 1984 as Staff Officer for Stewardship, Bp. John Allin had developed a pretty good deal to sell our building at what was then a peak time in the value of Manhattan real estate and had opened up another attractive proposal to purchase that was the Braniff Airlines Center closing very near the airport in Kansas City. At least on paper, the center had every possible advantage in the center itself and the local demographics. Bp Browning and others decided against the move and that ended it. Subsequent attempts have also, as you note, fallen through. Your central point of getting the horse (mission strategy) in front of the cart (location) is, of course what should be the priority. I also agree that merely changing location now is only at best an expense issue and while important, not the “point of the spear.”

      1. Br. James Teets BSG says:

        Hi Ron! It’s good to hear from you again; perhaps you recall when we served at 815 together? I joined the staff as Administrator of the World Mission Unit in July of 1986. Though I began there shortly after PB Edmund Browning came, I do remember PB John Allin’s plan to sell the building — it was a fairly new building at that time, being just about 25 years old — but the tide of interest in centralization throughout TEC swung against him and the deal was passed up. Those were the good days, when the GC Program Budget increased each year and new staff were regularly hired to fill all the opportunities for mission that that new money made possible. Several other attempts to sell 815 have come forward over time; I recall a time when Executive Council was ready to accept an offer for about $75 million, and then the most recent one during PB Frank Griswold’s time which ran right up to the last minute before he changed his mind about moving to GTS. But it is both laughable and sad to see all of the negativity and anti-Church Center verbiage flying around this issue! It seems like there are those among us who want to see our church fail and become less and less relevant; when I came on staff the name of a number of offices included “…in Church and Society,” which told the story of involvement in life around us. This is not the first time we have seen such negativity, but it is nonetheless painful to read. It is obvious that moving a centralized staff to an obscure area of the country would have enormous impact upon the church’s ability to attract and retain the most talented and dedicated people to serve in its offices and departments, and in that case, what would you have?

        It’s nice to see your name again, Ron, and I wish you all the best.

  19. Charles Smith says:

    I rather like the idea of the Lakota reservation in South Dakota. There, you have a native American community that already has an Episcopal presence, an area with a lot of poverty and unemployment – in short, a place where ECUSA could put some of their high sounding words to actual practice.

    Personally, I’d like to see it in Barrow, Alaska. That, I think, would tend to curb unnecessary travel, encourage use of electronic communication and meetings, and allow the hot air from the church center to be put to good use.

  20. Peter Tucker says:

    Jeremy – I love NYC. My daughter lives on LI. And I spend lots of time there and in the city. Realistically, as another poster pointed out, the real problems with TEC are not location but the shift from a church to a hierarchical social activist organization at the expense of mission and membership. That said, and in spite of my love for NYC, it is not representative of America.

    1. Mark P. Kessinger says:

      In what way, specifically, is NYC “not representative of America?” Is it not white enough? Not suburban enough? Too multicultural? Do tell.

  21. Rev Lisa B Hamilton says:

    Restructuring TEC should determine housing needs. In the meantime, good move to get 815 on the market!

  22. I agree wholeheartedly with the gentleman who suggested the national headquarters should move to Palm Springs, CA. We have the best weather in the world, low housing costs, reasonable distance to Los Angeles and San Diego for culture, and it does have an airport and a train station. The money tied up in 815 can and should be used for mission.

    1. Wally Wallace says:

      The question(s) are “what money” and “how much is there”? More importantly, what is the National HQ, what should it look like and how best can it serve the Church? 815 is an asset at a “low” market value. The National HQ, ERD and other agencies take up more than half the building. Relocation of the HQ will results in the purchase or lease of square footage to house these organizations. What is the Church willing to spend on a HQ?

    2. Charles Smith says:

      Access to culture contributes to mission how?

      1. Nellwyn Beamon says:

        It adds to the quality of life to those who would work at the center.

  23. Jim DeLa says:

    Isn’t Province IV (Southeastern U.S.) the largest in TEC, in terms of the number of Episcopalians? Wouldn’t it make sense to move the central office to where most of the Episcopalians are? Atlanta? Charlotte? Somewhere in Florida?

    1. Polk Van Zandt says:

      Jim you are absolutely correct. Move to where the majority of Episcopalians live AND where the church is at least holding its own (in terms of membership). Province IV is also where the money comes from.

  24. DAVID E OWEN says:

    I favor at or near National Cathedral in Washington, and ask how would it improve our image as an elitist, not really serious, denomination to establish our headquarters in Palm Springs, CA, Hollywood’s playground?

    I’m for Nat. Cathedral with business offices in suburban VA.

    1. Laurie Brown says:

      Have you experienced the traffic situation in Northern VA lately, David? Not to mention real estate costs …

      TEC doesn’t need a physical “center.” Let Jesus be the center of our collective efforts to spread the Gospel. As others have said, we can communicate using technology. On the occasions when we need face-to-face meeting time, we can pick a location and book meeting space.

  25. Stuart Brier says:

    While it’s understandable in today’s economy that TEC would need to cut expenses, selling Church Center and relocating might incur some extra expense in terms of staffing. If some staff members who have excellent skills and needed knowledge for the work are not able to relocate and have to leave, wouldn’t it be costly in some ways to train brand new people for these posts?

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