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Third Church of Christ, Scientist

583 Park Avenue

Northeast corner at 63rd Street

Third Churchof Christ, Scientist

Third Church of Christ, Scientist, at right, Central Presbyterian Church, left

By Carter B. Horsley

With its very tall lantern top, dome, arched windows, columns, pediments and handsome proportions, this red-brick, Georgian-style church is one of the highlights of Park Avenue at the southern end of the Upper East Side.

It was completed in 1924 to designs by Delano & Aldrich, the architectural firm which also designed the nearby Colony Club at 564 Park Avenue at 62nd Street, completed in 1916 (see The City Review article) and the Knickerbocker Club, completed in 1913 at 2 East 62nd Street at Fifth Avenue (see The City Review article). All three handsome structures are in the same basic style, although this building is perhaps the best of the lot because of its distinctive form.

The U. S. Second Circuit Court of Appeals today upheld a 2008 decision that blocked New York City officials from revoking an "accessory use" catering permit for the Third Church of Christ, Scientist on the northeast corner of Park Avenue and 63rd Street, according to an article December 1, 2010 in The New York Post by Bruce Golding.

The unanimous ruling upheld the right of the church "to rent out space for swanky soirees despite griping from its influential neighbors," the article said, citing "similar 'catering and event' operations at the nearby Beekman co-op and the Regency hotel, saying the church was being treated 'on less than equal terms with' them."

The ruling, the article continued, "also noted that a warning letter from the Department of Buildings 'decreed that 'in no event' would DOB allow catered events at the church.'"

"Thus, by the plain terms of the city’s letter, the church would be unable to secure a temporary-use permit to hold even a small catered reception for the wedding or baptism of one of its members - the type of event no one suggests would fail to qualify as an accessory use for a church," Judge Guido Calabresi wrote for the three-judge panel, the article noted.

"The controversy erupted after the church - which has seen its membership fall to fewer than 100 members - cut a deal with the Rose Group catering company to finance $6 million worth of renovations to its neo-Georgian house of worship," the article said.

"Neighbors, including former vice-presidential candidate Geraldine Ferraro, complained that the ensuing parties were causing 'a serious disruption' and hired powerhouse publicist Howard Rubenstein to lobby the city on their behalf," the article noted.

In a December 2, 2008 article in The New York Times, Sewell Chan wrote that Judge Deborah A. Batts of the Federal District Court in Manhattan  issued a 34-page decision that sided with the church and barred the New York City Buildings Department from revoking a 20-year-lease the church had signed with a catering company to raise money for needed repairs of its very handsome building.

"The partying can continue," Mr. Chan wrote, adding that "neighbors of the church...had accused it of violating zoning regulations by using the building for commercial purposes."

The church bought the property in 1920 and completed the Georgian-style building about 1924. "Membership," the article said, "peaked at about 1,000 in the 1940s and ’50s, but has since dropped to fewer than 100 people - in part, the church says, because of the dilapidated state of the building. By the late 1990s, the church faced the prospect of having to sell the property. In January 2006, the church signed a lease agreement with the Rose Group Park Avenue, a catering company, allowing it to hold events there for the next 20 years in return for significant rental payments and $8 million for capital improvements."

The lease, the article continued, "gave the caterer the right to cover signs that identify the building as a church, and to supervise custodial and maintenance employees. The company agreed to pay for utilities, and even agreed to pay real estate taxes if the church lost its tax-exempt status. The church is in an area where zoning rules ordinarily prohibit commercial activities unless they are 'accessory' to residences and community facilities. In April 2006, the Buildings Department signed off, finding that the catering was an appropriate 'accessory use' of the church building. But neighbors - and their elected officials - began to complain. The department reversed course, and in November 2007 moved to revoke the lease. At that point the church sued, arguing that the city was violating a federal law, the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000, by treating it differently from 'comparable nonreligious institutions' that had been allowed to rent out space for social events. During the litigation, it emerged that the city had done little or nothing to stop other businesses that were operating in the area in violation of the same or similar zoning rules. For example, a restaurant was operating at the Beekman, a co-op building 60 feet from the church, and the nearby Regency Hotel was open to the general public for dining and drinking even though its certificate of occupancy said it was an 'apartment hotel.'"

Judge Batts concluded that “under any reading, the city has treated the Third Church of Christ, Scientist, on less than equal terms.”

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