Community fears Port Authority expansion

| 23 Feb 2016 | 06:17

Metro Baptist Church, a handsome brick and stone building with Gothic accents on West 40th Street near Ninth Avenue, has served thousands of congregants and people in need over the past hundred years. It's been a Polish church, a recreation center, a drug rehabilitation center, and now hosts a Baptist congregation that also shares the space with three other nonprofit organizations.

But with the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey looking at expansion options for a gateway bus terminal that long ago exceeded its carrying capacity, Metro Baptist and the other nonprofits could be looking for new homes in the next few years.

When or how the terminal's redevelopment takes shape has yet to be determined, but all of the design concepts laid out in presentations to the Port Authority board call for a westward expansion beyond Ninth Avenue — and the demolition of swaths of buildings, including Metro Baptist and, likely, those of five other area nonprofits. And that has the nearby nonprofit community fearful of what would be lost, to the neighborhood and to the people who rely on services such as those supplied by Metro Baptist.

In addition to being a place of worship, the church is linked to the Rauschenbusch Metro Ministries, which provide weekly food pantries for 800 people per month, weekly warm clothing distributions in the wintertime and social service programs for the homeless. The church also works with the Hudson Guild to provide free after-school programs and run a teen center.

“The expansion would completely chop up the community in half,” said Tiffany Henkel, Metro Baptist's pastor and executive director.

“We can't imagine that if they were to take the space by imminent domain that we could find space to do the kind of work we do. We wholly believe that we can do the best work here where we are,” she said.

No space is left unused at Metro Baptist: chairs are cleared out of the sanctuary, with the space then used all-purpose room for many church programs. The upstairs also doubles as a youth area and a classroom for adults, while the downstairs is used regularly for a variety of food-related programs. The Hell's Kitchen Farm Project, an urban farm that donates all of its produce to the homeless via the church's weekly food pantry, is on the church roof.

Across the street is The Dwelling Place of New York, a transitional residence for homeless women as well as a building belonging to Clinton Housing Developing Company, a nonprofit that develops affordable housing.

“It would be a real blow to this neighborhood and what we do here and for the women that we serve,” said Sister Joanne Sambs of The Dwelling Place. She noted that their space is owned by The Archdiocese of New York, so there may be hope for a new space, but no arrangements have been made yet.

The Clinton Housing building contains 38 affordable apartments and four retail spaces, including the Sea Breeze Fish Market, which has been in the neighborhood for over 100 years.

Vincent Dimino, owner of the Sea Breeze Fish Market, started working there as a boy when his parents owned the store. He has a 130-year lease on the property and expects to be compensated if the Port Authority moves in.

“I think a deal can be worked out,” Dimino said. He hopes that the Port Authority would reopen the retail space on Ninth Avenue after their construction and the fish market could move back in.

Neal Buccino, a spokesman for the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey, declined to comment when asked about the terminal's plans and how they might affect the buildings and tenants west of the current facility. In October, the Port Authority board endorsed a working group's recommendation that would entail “constructing a new bus terminal on available Port Authority-owned property one block west of the current structure, between Ninth and Eleventh Avenues.” But it also resolved to hold a competition in which alternative designs would be welcome “should their analysis determine that the proposed site west of Ninth Avenue is not optimal.”

In addition to worries about the nonprofits on West 40th Street, community leaders expressed concern over the potential damage to the character of the neighborhood.

Ann Warren, co-owner of the Cupcake Café, housed in the same building as the fish market and Clinton Housing, said any expansion of the terminal toward 11th Avenue would be lamentable.

“It's kind of sad because our block is the last kind of stretch in New York that has that sort of character, four- to six-story buildings with the smaller stores, with the smaller independent tenants. We actually had no chain stores forever practically in this neighborhood,” Warren said. If her business were forced out, “I would not be starting up another store, I can promise you that,” she said.

Community leaders also noted that the expansion plans don't fully meet the neighborhood's bus needs.

“We're not against the plan generically, but it's in the midst of a whole neighborhood. It's not just the taking of four blocks, it's like chopping off an arm of a leg of the neighborhood,” said Betty Mackintosh, co-chair of Community Board 4's Land Use Committee and member of a working group that has been set up to work through the issue of the Port Authority expansion.

She and Christine Berthet, co-chair of CB4's Transportation Committee, expressed concern that the expansion would severely damage the visual continuity of the neighborhood by eliminating a block of historical brick tenement buildings.

“You are deadening a block,” Berthet said.

Delores Rubin, the CB4 chair, said “It's important that they [the Port Authority board] understand that there's a real neighborhood dynamic here. It's not just a transportation hub that we're talking about.”

Most of the proposals for the new terminal also don't ameliorate the problems of intercity and tour buses, Mackintosh and Berthet said.

Currently the terminal serves as a departure and arrival point for Greyhound, Peter Pan, and several other smaller intercity bus companies, but there are not enough departure gates for all that operate in the city, according to Mackintosh and Berthet. Passengers departing the city on BoltBus and MegaBus currently use a space on 33rd and 34th Streets between 11th and 12th Avenues with little development. Although the space is now considered relatively convenient with the new Hudson Yards/34th Street subway station nearby, developers for the Hudson Yards project have taken issue with this, Berthet said.

“The developers working over there, Related, they are furious. They don't want those buses over there. That is a problem that needs to be fixed,” she said.

Most of the new bus terminal proposals lack a space for these intercity buses to operate, which leaves them to find yet another spot if Hudson Yards were to pressure them to leave.

There is also the issue of the tour buses, which wait in the neighborhood to pick up visitors to the city that they have shuttled in to see Broadway shows and other attractions. For six to seven months of the year when tourism in the city is at its peak, around 350 buses are in the area looking for parking. Most of the new terminal plans would not ameliorate this issue, said Berthet.

“It's not a complete solution by any means,” she said.