Church’s neighbors say it’s hard to rest on Lord’s day

By Ronda Kaysen

A new house of God in Tribeca is having problems that are entirely Earthly in nature… some of their neighbors wish God would find a new address.

Faith Exchange Fellowship, an evangelical church at 443 Greenwich St., on the corner of Vestry St., set up shop in the ground floor of the landmark building in May and has been holding weekly services there ever since. The congregation’s Web site pledges “to reach out to the community in their time of need.”

But instead of making life easier for their new neighbors, the congregation’s large services and unexpected signage has some of their neighbors upset. Both the Landmarks Preservation Commission and the Fire Dept. have issued warnings against the church and two weeks ago Community Board 1 sent a letter to the Department of Buildings to investigate what it claims is a violation of the city’s building code.

This week, residents of two Vestry St. apartment buildings circulated petitions among their neighbors, urging the community board to step in and ensure the congregation is following the law.

On Sunday mornings this once sleepy, unusually pristine Manhattan neighborhood is now bustling with cars parking, parishioners gathering and Christian rock blasting. What originally occurred only on Sundays has now extended into weeknights as well.

“It used to be totally empty,” said Amy Wolf, a 47 Vestry St. resident, who signed the petition. “There’s nothing to come down here for – there would be no real reason to come down here on a Sunday and that’s what I think people are used to here, so to have a new destination in the neighborhood takes a little getting used to.”

Tribeca, made up of landmark districts with cobblestone streets and low-rise cast iron buildings, is subject to strict Landmarks Preservation Commission regulations. A change to the exterior of most neighborhood buildings must be approved by L.P.C. At 443 Greenwich St., large green awnings with the church’s logo in white suddenly circled the building last spring, without L.P.C. approval.

“These people moved across the street and…put up awnings that looked like a Korean deli.” said Phil Silvestri, president of the 39 Vestry St. condo board, which is located across the street from the church and is circulating one of the petitions. “They put up awnings

But the awnings vanished as quickly as they appeared. After receiving a warning letter from the commission, the church removed the green tapestry last week, and the supporting frames this week.

On May 29, the church received a warning from the Fire Dept. about overcrowding. They were not in violation of the fire code, according to Virginia Lam, a Fire Dept. spokesperson, but were approaching a violation.

The neighborhood is zoned for commercial and residential use – not houses of worship – Judy Duffy, assistant district manager for Community Board 1 said. Two weeks ago, the board sent a letter to the city’s Department of Buildings about the church, urging them to investigate. As of press time, the Buildings Dept. had not issued any violations.

The church – its windows nearly entirely covered from public view – appears to be in the midst of internal construction as well. Duffy suspects the work is being done without permits.

“You can’t have people running around the city of New York and plopping themselves down wherever they want,” said Carole De Saram, chairperson of C.B. 1’s Tribeca Committee.

This weekend, the congregation circulated fliers announcing a neighborhood stoop sale, charging sellers $25 to hock their wares and $5 to rent a table, another possible violation, said Duffy. “It was probably okay until they started charging,” she said.

Faith Exchange had been without a permanent home since Sept. 11, 2001, when the congregation lost its 90 West St. location in the World Trade Center disaster. The church has posted pictures of its new address on its Web site and, from the looks of the site and the activity at its new space, is setting down roots in its $40,000 a month subleased space. Pastor Dan Stratton did not return calls for comment.

For some of the residents of Tribeca, the church’s behavior has been rather unneighborly. “I have nothing against people practicing their faith. What it’s about is how people get in under the wire of things, who don’t follow the same set of codes and rules and regulations that the rest of the neighborhood is under and then say, ‘Oh, we’re a church.’ That’s not right,” said Silvestri. “If they are looking for a church, why don’t they go rent a church somewhere?”


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