Thursday, April 25, 2013

What Would You Do With $2 Billion?

You're not gonna believe this.

If you attend a church, take a guesstimate at how much it's worth.  If you don't attend a church, pick the biggest one in your community, and go a little wild with how much you'd guess it's worth.  Go ahead:  add it all up.  Property, buildings, vehicles, cash-on-hand, parsonages, religious icons and custom artwork, sound equipment, musical equipment... throw it all in and add it up.

Does it add up to $2 billion?

Billion.  With a "B."  Actually, does it add up to MORE than $2 billion?  Because that's how much New York City's mainline Episcopal Trinity Church estimates its worth to be.

Incredible, huh?  I'm laughing out loud as I type "Manhattan Church Worth Over $2 Billion."

Liz, Phil, and Anne

Now, granted, it's hard to put a pricetag on the church's historic worship spaces.  These include St. Paul's Chapel, one of the oldest continuously-used religious buildings in the United States, plus the congregation's flagship space, an elegant jewelbox of a miniature Gothic cathedral built in 1846, anchoring the head of Wall Street.  What its main sanctuary lacks in size - compared to its massive European cousins - it more than makes up for in lush hallowedness and hushed venerability.  You can practically smell its ancient auspiciousness as you enter off of cacophonous Broadway, walking right over the threshold embellished with a plaque commemorating Queen Elizabeth II's royal visit in 1976, during America's Bicentennial.

The Queen, of course, is the figurehead of the Church of England, from which Trinity's Episcopalian denomination is an offshoot.  So even though I've always thought it unusual in multiple ways for a church to have a brass plaque in honor of Her Royal Highness, perhaps what's genuinely goofy about it is what's immortalized on it:

"ON THIS SPOT
STOOD
HER MAJESTY
QUEEN ELIZABETH II
ON THE OCCASION OF
HER GRACIOUS VISIT
9 JULY 1976
HIS ROYAL HIGHNESS
THE PRINCE PHILIP
STOOD NEARBY"

Again, I find myself laughing as I type this out, even though I'm glad having the Queen's husband in such close proximity to her hallowed ground was worth being acknowledged in such grand fashion.  He's certainly played second fiddle all his married life.  Considering how theologically and socially liberal Trinity has been for years, perhaps referencing a royal spouse this way was a bold - albeit contrived - form of gender equality.

Indeed, since Trinity has a legacy of liberalism, doesn't it seem odd for the church to be one of Manhattan's largest landowners?  All of that $2 billion isn't tied up in their sanctuary, chapel, and cemeteries along Broadway.  Trinity owns 14 acres of land in Manhattan, which is some of the world's priciest real estate, regardless of what's built on it.

When it comes to money and wealth, however, everything is relative, isn't it?  Although Trinity owns 14 acres of highly-coveted city property, it used to own a whopping 215 acres, mostly farmland north of what is now the Financial District.  England's Queen Anne donated the land in 1705, back when Trinity was part of the Church of England.  Imagine the church's worth today if it still held even half of those 215 acres!  In a way, Trinity could be considered poor by comparison.

Putting On Airs

It's not even as though Trinity is the only church with extraordinary finances in New York City.  Several churches, particularly those on Manhattan Island, have been able to parlay their real estate portfolio - as meager as most are - to their financial advantage.

The new St. Peter's Lutheran Church (in red circle)
sits underneath a corner of the Citicorp Center tower

St. Peter's Lutheran Church, for example, used to be housed in a grand old Gothic edifice at the corner of 54th Street and Lexington Avenue.  In the late 1960's, when Citicorp Bank was putting together parcels of land to construct its new skyscraper east of Lexington, in what used to be a residential part of Midtown, the congregation decided it couldn't fight change.  Rapidly shrinking in size from white flight to the suburbs and Midtown's rapid conversion to high-rise office space, the church sold out to the bank in exchange for a smaller, modernist, yet opulent facility tucked underneath the new "floating" skyscraper.

Just this past February, the legendary Zeckendorf family of developers paid over $40 million to Christ Church, a Methodist congregation, for the air rights over its prime Park Avenue sanctuary.  In New York City, air rights refer to the volume of space that exists between the amount of construction the city's zoning laws allow, and what is currently built on the site.  In other words, if you own a parcel of land in Manhattan, and it's about five stories high, but zoning for that parcel of land allows something of up to 30 stories, you could sell the air rights for 25 stories to a developer to use on another project that needs air rights.  So Christ Church sold the air over its sanctuary for $40 million to developers who plan on using those air rights to increase the allowable size of a residential skyscraper they're building next door.

And if you think $40 million for empty air is a hefty price for the church to charge, consider that the Zeckendorf family plans on charging up to $48 million per apartment in their new tower.  Prices are that crazy in New York.

But, even so:  a church holding a portfolio worth two billion dollars?

Some say such an eye-popping amount is really only due to the city's unprecedented explosion in real estate values.  Trinity Church didn't set out to amass such a windfall, even if they have administered their properties adroitly.  If the church truly was money-hungry, would they have allowed their real estate holdings to dwindle so significantly over the centuries?  Plus, it's not Trinity's fault that Manhattan property values are ridiculously high.  Neither is it like the church has been on a buying spree, snapping up properties for profit.

In addition, this two billion dollars could be considered a form of endowment to help hedge the church against lean economic times.  Granted, two billion dollars represents a veritable concrete fortress instead of a lush hedge, especially for an organization whose enterprise is generally believed to be a break-even charity.  And considering the wealth and prestige many of its well-heeled members individually enjoy, it seems most unlikely that Trinity's collection coffers are going to run dry anytime soon, necessitating a run on the parish's rainy day fund.

A Billion Here, A Billion There...

The question has arisen, however, as to what the church plans on doing with its wealth.  It's been the type of question most congregations never get to ask, or if they do, the amount of money they're bickering over totals far less than two billion dollars.  But New York City is anything but normal, average, or conventional.  Except in one aspect:  at Trinity, the question has sparked what's turning into a good-old church split of sorts, and so far, one lawsuit.

Who says money can't buy happiness?  Many people in Trinity's membership, apparently.  They're not pleased that out of the church's $38 million operating budget for 2011 - yes, I'll let that sink in:  2011's annual budget was $38 million - less than 10% was spent on philanthropy.  True, Trinity funds the usual social programs expected of liberal churches, such as an AIDS walk, letter-writing to prisoners, an anti-racism campaign, and a community center, but these are mostly low-budget initiatives churches much smaller and poorer than Trinity also run all over the country.

And that's what galls an increasing number of Trinity congregants.  Most of Trinity's budget gets put back in the bank.  Shouldn't that money be out in the community, working on whatever churches traditionally are expected to do - but on a grand New York scale?  We evangelicals wouldn't expect a church with the type of theology as Trinity's to develop evangelistic programs and church planting efforts around the world.   But Trinity already spends some money helping Anglican churches in Africa, and some of Trinity's members think they could do far more of that.

Then there's New York's grinding poverty that Mayor Bloomberg may have been able to conveniently hide during his extraordinary three terms, but still stubbornly exists.  What two billion dollars couldn't do to help provide affordable apartments for indigent senior citizens!  Or run comprehensive transitional shelters for abused women and children, or fund scholarships at private schools in neighborhoods with sub-standard public schools, or even help subsidize late-night mass transit routes so the working poor can get safely home from their off-hours jobs in a reasonable amount of time.

It's not rocket science:  money talks in New York City.  It talks louder there than anyplace else in America - other than Washington, DC, of course!  In fact, it's the very same loud money that has helped Trinity to realize the stunning valuation of its 14 acres.  Fourteen measly acres - how many mega-churches across suburbia sprawl over so much more land that's worth a fraction of Trinity's two billion dollars?

Meanwhile,  Trinity is facing a revolt within its membership over whether hoarding money is helping to serve its community.  What about "the least of these," the folks for which limousine liberals usually sympathize?

Are they quietly standing nearby, negligible, an afterthought, just like the Queen's husband?

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