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Response of diocesan Trustees to landmarking of St. John's in Jersey City

Nina Nicholson

Yesterday the City Council of Jersey City voted to name St. John's Church in Jersey City, closed since 1994, a local landmark.

John Garde, Esq., president of the diocesan Trustees, said, "We're disappointed in the actions of the City Council, which does nothing to resolve the status of the property, for all the reasons articulated in the letter we sent to the City Council prior to their vote."

The Trustees' letter to the City Council is reprinted below.

Garde said, "The Trustees stand ready -- as we always have -- to talk to any group who wishes to purchase and develop the property, but so far no offers have been forthcoming."

The Notice of Unsafe Structure issued to the diocese by the City of Jersey City in March 2013 remains in place. The diocesan Trustees are considering all their options.

Letter from the diocesan Trustees to the City Council of Jersey City

The Honorable Jerramiah Healy, Mayor
Office of the Mayor
City Hall, 280 Grove Street
Jersey City, New Jersey 07302

The Honorable Peter Brennan
Council President
City Hall, 280 Grove Street, Rm. 202
Jersey City, New Jersey 07302

The Honorable Members of the Jersey City Council
City Hall, 280 Grove Street, Rm. 202
Jersey City, New Jersey 07302

Re:      Jersey City Proposed Municipal Ordinance 13-079
            Historical Landmarking of the Former St. John’s Church

Dear Mayor Healy, Council President Brennan and Council Members:

I write in my capacity as President of the Trustees of the Episcopal Diocese of Newark and as title owners of the former St. John’s Property on Summit Avenue.  We have learned that the City Council will vote this evening, apparently on a second reading, on an ordinance to designate the referenced property as an historic landmark.  On behalf of the Diocese, we must respectfully oppose this request as the designation of this building as a landmark will do little to helpfully resolve the status of this building.

St. John’s Church was one of several Jersey City churches that closed in the 1980s and 90s due to shrinking congregations faced with growing expenses.  This church has not housed a congregation since 1994. These are facts which cannot be ignored.

In March 2013 the City of Jersey City served the Diocese of Newark with a Notice of Unsafe Structure for St. John’s, requiring that the diocese either demolish or repair the building, or face weekly fines.  The diocesan Trustees and every expert that we have consulted with over the years with regard to the condition of this building, concur with the assessment that the building is unsafe.

The cost of repair – estimated to be in the millions of dollars – is far beyond the financial means of the Diocese.

While various groups and developers have approached the diocesan Trustees over the years to discuss acquiring the property over for a variety of public and private uses, none have ever made an actual proposal to purchase the property.

An ordinance to designate St. John’s a landmark was introduced before the City Council in 2008. The Council voted to table it and directed the City Building Inspector to evaluate the safety of the building. Despite numerous requests, this evaluation never occurred. The diocesan Trustees are complying with the Notice of Unsafe Structure by contracting with a demolition contractor to demolish the building.

In order to make the structure safe to demolish, asbestos abatement was first required on the upper level, around the windows and ceiling (asbestos abatement of the lower level was done a few years ago).  This work was completed on Friday, May 17, 2013.

As Trustees of the Diocese, we are charged with supporting the ministry of the entire Diocese.  The Diocese of Newark and all of its constituent congregations are called to live out the Gospel by ministering to the most vulnerable members of our communities: the homeless, the hungry, families and children in need.  This is the work our diocese does daily through our 106 congregations in Northern New Jersey, and in the economic environment of the past few years this ministry has become more important than ever.  To divert funds instead to a property that no longer has a role in our ministry would deprive these vital ministries of scarce and much-needed resources.

The Diocese of Newark is committed to ministry in the Jersey City community through the three remaining Jersey City Episcopal churches, Grace Church Van Vorst, Church of the Incarnation and St. Paul’s Church in Bergen.  All sales proceeds from previously closed Jersey City churches were used to create the Jersey City Area Ministry (JCAM) Fund, which since 1997 has supported meal programs for the homeless or those living in poverty; enrichment programs for children whose parents otherwise couldn’t afford them; and other ministries benefiting the residents of Jersey City.  Any net sale proceeds from St. John’s would likewise go to the JCAM Fund to support existing and future ministry in Jersey City.

On behalf of the Diocese, we respectfully request that the ordinance and accompanying designation be rejected.

Very truly yours,

John C. Garde
President, Trustees of Episcopal Properties and
Diocesan Funds of the Episcopal Diocese of Newark