Massive New York Times story on Trinity Church raises good questions, but contains a big ghost

Every working day when I am teaching in New York, I walk past the historic Trinity Episcopal Church. I don’t go in that direction on Sundays, because I head over to Brooklyn for a rather different, clearly Orthodox liturgical experience.

But back to the dramatic sanctuary at Broadway and Wall Street. We are talking about some prime real estate. And if you are interested in the dollars and cents of all that, then The New York Times recently ran a long, long story that you will need to read.

Actually, this sprawling epic is three or four stories in one. You can kind of see that in the massive second line of this double-decker headline. So sit down and dig in.

The Church With the $6 Billion Portfolio

While many houses of worship are warding off developers as they struggle to hold on to their buildings, Trinity Church has become a big-time developer itself.

Frankly, I think this story should have been a series of some kind — to allow several of the valid religion-news angles to receive the news hole that they deserve. In a way, saying that is a compliment. Maybe.

For starters, you have that whole “$6 Billion Portfolio” thing, which deserves (and gets) a rather business-page approach. Then you have a perfectly valid church-state story about the tax questions circling around that vast bundle of secular and sacred real estate and development. Then you have a separate, but related, issue — New York City’s many other historic churches in which people are, often literally, struggling to keep a roof over their heads.

Oh, and Trinity Wall Street is still an actual congregation that is linked to a historic, but now rapidly declining, old-line denomination.

Want to guess which of these stories received the least among of ink in this epic? #DUH

If you guessed the “church” story, you guessed right. Yes, there is an important religion “ghost” in this big religion story.

Let’s start with the overture, then I will note one or two passages that point to what could have been. To no one’s surprise, a certain Broadway musical made it into the lede:

Since the blockbuster musical “Hamilton,” tourists have been swarming Trinity Church, part of an Episcopal parish in Lower Manhattan that dates to the 17th century. Alexander Hamilton and his wife, Eliza Schuyler Hamilton, are buried in the cemetery there.

Recent years have been good to the church and the rest of its campus. St. Paul’s Chapel, near the World Trade Center, escaped destruction during the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and now gleams following a fresh coat of paint. After a cleaning in September, Hamilton’s white marble obelisk also sparkles. Soon the entire church — and a new $350 million glass tower under construction behind it — will, too.

It makes sense. If a founding father can get a 21st-century update, so can the church where he is buried. Especially since the church in question is very, very rich.

While many places of worship are warding off developers as they struggle to hold on to their congregations and buildings, Trinity is a big-time developer itself.

The church has always been land-rich. And it has long had its own real estate arm, which controls ground leases and office space rentals in the buildings it owns. But now it finds itself with a newly diversified portfolio worth $6 billion, according to the current rector, the Rev. Dr. William Lupfer.

Like I said, there is a valid church-state angle to all of this. You can see that right here:

Trinity has been able to do all this because it’s been a savvy manager of its resources. It is also, as a church, exempt from taxes.

But some wonder about the ethics of a religious institution being such a power player in the world of New York real estate.

Believe it or not, this long feature never really digs into that loaded question. I, for one, wanted to see a church-state professional or two look at the status of the church’s holdings and dissect how the state views the offices and facilities that are clearly used for religious purposes (yes, defining “religious” is a legal minefield) and those that are rented to secular non-profit organizations or even straight-forward business organizations.

There is even a chance that the legal status of this land is complicated by the twists and turns of history. See this fascinating reference that just flies past the reader, with zippo follow-up:

Trinity’s current affluence can be traced to a gift of 215 acres from Queen Anne in 1705. (The church was first chartered, under King William III, in 1697, a few decades after the British took over New Amsterdam.) Trinity still owns 14 acres of that original land grant, mostly in Hudson Square.

I understand that this is, primarily, a business story with hints of religion, not the other way around.

I also see the link to the subject that Times editors probably considered — with good cause — the second most “newsworthy” angle here. I am talking about the painful economic (and demographic) realities that are causing many other urban churches to close or radically change the shape of their ministries. For me, this is the story that needed it’s own headline, its own day to grab key turf in the newspaper.

Check out all of the valid story angles in this one long, long passage:

Some churches have allowed developers to build on their property. Residents of Morningside Heights in Upper Manhattan were still recovering from an apartment tower being erected on the campus of St. John the Divine in 2008, when the church gave the go-ahead for a second project — to be built just steps from the landmark cathedral, in 2015.

And then there is the sale of air rights. Under the new East Midtown zoning laws, landmark religious institutions are able to transfer air rights (the space over their buildings) to developers who can apply those air rights within a 78-block area. St. Patrick’s, St. Bart’s and Central Synagogue, which supported the new rules, are all expected to sell their air rights.

The New York religious institutions that are safest from destruction, it seems, have either been declared landmarks or are land-rich. Trinity Church is both.

In 2005, Trinity hired Carl Weisbrod, an urban planning expert, director of the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation and founding president of the Alliance for Downtown New York, to lead the church’s real estate arm. Mr. Weisbrod initiated the 2013 rezoning of Hudson Square, which allowed for the construction of residential buildings. This set off a frenzy of development in the area and greatly enhanced the value of Trinity’s holdings.

Trinity then diversified, entering into a joint partnership with Norway’s Norges Bank Investment Management, and managed by the developer Hines, which also has a small stake in the project, involving the church’s holdings in Hudson Square.

Since 2015, proceeds from the partnership have totaled $1.73 billion and have been folded into a range of other investments. In 2017, the latest year for which an audited financial statement is available, Trinity’s portfolio yielded a net return of $301 million.

Trinity’s wealth enables it to support other churches (it has its own grant department with a formal application process). It has given away $10 million a year and plans to ramp up its contributions. … It also finances its own humanitarian efforts, including a 325-unit affordable residence for older people and those with disabilities, as well as brown-bag lunches for 35,000 annually.

Oh, right. There is a social justice angle to all of this.

About six years ago, nearly half of Trinity’s vestry — a group of parishioners who function like a board of directors — resigned because they felt the church wasn’t doing enough to help those in need. But two congregants who were part of the upheaval — including Jeremy C. Bates, who filed a lawsuit that led to the institution making its financial records public — believe the church has turned a corner. “I feel we are more unified,” Mr. Bates said.

Let me end with my main regret about this giant feature. I have attended several Sunday services at Trinity Church and it is, to say the least, a nice-sized — but not huge — congregation. There are some young couples, gay and straight, and (on the times when I was there) a few children. There are lots of people with gray hair, but not as many as one would ordinarily see in a liberal Protestant flock.

So how is the CONGREGATION doing these days? You know, the actual church that resides inside that glorious building? Is that an important part of this story?

How many active members does the parish have these days? Is that number headed up or down? Is attendance on the rise? How has it handled controversial worship and doctrinal issues in the past decade or two? Is the parish theologically diverse? Why do some members travel quite a distance to frequent these pews?

The Times team cracked that door open, just a bit, in these lines.

Trinity appears to have it all: a vibrant congregation, well-tended church buildings, a shiny new tower promising robust amenities — and abundant resources.

In some respects it might even resemble the megachurches of the suburbs, with their broadcasting stations and satellite churches to which they beam the Sunday service. Trinity’s own broadcast room is being updated in the renovation, as are other back-of-house spaces. A large split-screen monitor in the new sacristy will allow the clergy to track activity in the sanctuary as well as in St. Paul’s and in the parish-house portion of the new tower.

Could big, muscular churches become the new normal in New York as smaller churches vanish?

Good question. What does “vibrant” mean, in terms of statistics and the evaluation of church-growth experts? What does “vibrant” mean in the context of New York City, including the growth of some big evangelical Protestant churches?

I’d like to see a Times story on that.

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