Church of the Insurrection: Ugly Split Looms for Park Avenue Church and Day School

IMG_7327edit

Pastor Alvin Jackson. (Photo by Orla Ryan).

Parents and teachers at Park Avenue Christian Church Day School didn’t hesitate to pitch in when they were asked to help pack up classrooms in May so asbestos abatement could be carried out over summer break. Told that the cleanup was necessary to return to the school building in the fall, a group of about 30 parents and one grandparent volunteered over two weeks to ready hundreds of boxes for storage.

It was only by chance, in early August, that a PACCDS teacher happened to be visiting a legal aid office at 4 West 76th Street and noticed the boxes piled up in a meeting space there. Confused, she asked a member of the church’s staff where the school’s contents were being stored, only to be informed that the person who knew this was “on vacation.”

Meanwhile, a parent walking by 1010 Park Avenue saw cubbies being deposited into dumpsters and heard the word “condos” mentioned by a contractor. In an email to the outgoing Parents Association president, forwarded to The Observer, the church’s business manager, Melissa Little, wrote, “We are in full anticipation and would reiterate the opening of the school as originally scheduled in September. Further, we have no intention of closing the school.”

A few days later, on Aug. 12, staff and parents were stunned to discover via a news story on real estate website the Real Deal that the building had been sold to a developer and the new school term would begin at the Upper West Side location in mid-September.

Being asked to volunteer their time to do right by their school—only to discover in hindsight that they had been clearing it out for demolition—is one of the reasons parents feel slighted by Pastor Alvin Jackson, the controversial church leader who engineered the building sale in secret, citing confidentiality clauses by the developer, Extell. (The real estate company also paid for the asbestos abatement, according to Rev. Jackson.)

The Park Avenue Christian Church.

The Park Avenue Christian Church. (Photo by Celeste Sloman).

“They kind of preyed on our concerns for our children’s health,” said one father. “The only capital improvement that the church planned for 1010 Park Avenue was to knock it down.”

***

Over the years, revenue from the non-sectarian school, which serves ages 2 through kindergarten, has helped the church weather its money woes. PACCDS parents boast that their school is the “top six” of elite pre-K programs on the Upper East Side and brag of the celebrity alumni, including the offspring of Woody Allen and Lisa Kudrow. However, the constituencies of the struggling church and the well-heeled school don’t overlap much.

Anger and distrust are straining already uneasy relations as Extell negotiations continue and the day school adjusts to its new home across Central Park. Nearly half of the parents have pulled out since the move. There is talk of lawsuits, and a split now seems inevitable.

“If news had not broken about the deal, who knows when he would have told us about this?” one parent mused, referring to Mr. Jackson. “It was devastating. … We just couldn’t comprehend that this was possibly happening to us,” said a member of the school’s administration staff.

Compounding parents’ dismay is the fact that the church went public with its move after the deadline to pay 85 percent of the annual $20,000 tuition for the 2013-14 school year. “There was no way the church was going to let it slip, having kept it a secret for so long, before everybody paid up,” said one parent, a point of view shared by many. “They waited just enough time to get the checks and have them clear the banks.”

Many parents, some of whom happen to be lawyers, are citing fraud, noting that the school address on all contracts was listed as 1010 Park Avenue, even though a lease had been signed on the Upper West Side location in late 2012. “Everyone is seeing complete red,” said a source.

Though Rev. Jackson, 63, is apologetic about the clandestine nature of the deal, he is unwavering in his intention to sell off the 50-year-old school building. It would effectively wean the church from its dependence on the approximately $800,000 per year in tuition fees that it puts into church coffers, some of which covers administrative staff costs, according to Rev. Jackson. (By his estimates, PACC pre-K generates $4 million per year in revenues and requires $3.2 million to operate.)

The sale was perhaps inevitable, given the value of a prime parcel on Park Avenue between 84th and 85th Streets and a church $7 million in debt. Extell’s initial estimate to build the condos was $50 million, with an undisclosed number going to the church.

While Rev. Jackson is credited with reviving the church since his arrival in 2006, he may be a more skilled spiritual leader than PR man: The way the transaction has unfolded has halved enrollment at the popular school, putting the church in an even more precarious financial situation in the short term, and made the pastor himself a target of blistering ire.

***

Park Avenue Christian Church was first founded in 1810 and has been operating from its current location since 1945. (It shares the space with the Temple of Universal Judaism.) It is the oldest congregation in the Disciples of Christ, a nonhierarchical denomination that gives its member churches autonomy in terms of finances and property.

The church prides itself on a long history of social justice. It was converted to a temporary hospital during the Civil War and has been reaching out to immigrants since the late 19th century. It founded the Chinese Sunday School Union, where English was taught to several generations of Chinese newcomers until 1948.

For more than 20 years, the church has hosted a community lunch program for the homeless on Saturdays. (As the church’s kitchen is no longer accessible due to the renovations, a packed lunch instead of a hot meal is now provided.) At regular immigration clinics, attorneys from Church World Service provide free legal advice.

When the steering committee headhunted Rev. Jackson to be its senior pastor in 2006, attendance had dwindled to about 30 congregants per week, and the church was teetering on the brink of closure. The group chose him over 100 other candidates for the plum spot, which came with perks few parishes could match: The pastor’s residence is a well-appointed townhouse called the Manse, on Lexington Avenue between 94th and 95th Streets. (According to city records, the house’s market value is $5.3 million.)

Rev. Jackson had made his name as a leader with a knack for reviving limping congregations. During a 20-year stint at Mississippi Boulevard Christian Church in Memphis, Tenn., the flock grew from a few hundred to more than 8,000 people. As senior pastor of National City Christian Church in Washington, D.C., from 1998 to 2005, he was credited with tripling the size of the congregation.

Such was his success there that the PACC steering committee brushed aside a plagiarizing controversy, in which Mr. Jackson was caught using sermons from other preachers and passing them off as his own. Ms. Little, head of the search committee, told The New York Times that the church was willing to overlook Rev. Jackson’s transgression. “He realizes what he did,” she said. “He’s not going to do it again. He’s discerned it. He’s worked on it.”

The pastor's residence, also known as The Manse.

The pastor’s residence, also known as The Manse. (Photo by Celeste Sloman).

Paul Vasile, PACC’s minister of music, said Rev. Jackson has increased the numbers of African-American, Latino and Asian parishioners. “Our congregation certainly represents individuals from the Upper East Side, but it represents a broader swath of New York City,” he said. Churchgoers say that weekly attendance now averages 150 to 200. (When The Observer visited on the last two Sundays, it was closer to 100.)

“I can’t begin to tell you how much I love that man. He’s just a wonderful, wonderful minister,” said Sigrid Sunstedt, a parishioner for more than 30 years. “He has enlarged our congregation considerably, although [that] didn’t really seem to help our revenue, because the wealthy people in the community, the ones that are so objecting to this project that they’re undertaking now, don’t come to our church.”

The growing numbers have lifted spirits, but they have not generated the donations needed to turn things around financially. “The first four months that I was here, most of the discussions of the board were about ‘What are we going to do if we have to close? What are we going to do with the assets if we have to close the church?’” Rev. Jackson recalled. With the impending sale, he said, “That’s no longer what people are talking about. They’re talking about ‘What new program can we start? How can we make a difference here?’”

***

Rev. Jackson first signed an agreement to sell the annex to Extell Development Company in spring 2012. A few months later, the church leased a building on the Upper West Side, with the intention of moving the pre-K across town.

In March 2013, the church filed for a work permit with the Department of Buildings to renovate the space, located at 4 West 76th Street, under a false name: Little Day School. Mr. Jackson has said that this was due to a confidentiality clause in the deal with Extell. “We didn’t want what we were planning to do to be discovered at that time. It’s just that simple,” Mr. Jackson said.

If the deal with Extell goes through, the school building will be knocked down to make way for condos. The original proposal, which was submitted to the Department of Buildings on Aug. 9, was for a 16-floor building with 17 units, with an estimated cost of $50 million. Following complaints by members of the local community that the modern design wouldn’t fit in and could damage the landmarked 102-year-old church building itself, the initial plan was shot down, and a revised design is being prepared by Extell in consultation with preservation experts Beyer Blinder Belle.

Details on how much the church stands to make from the sale have not been made public. Several parents have noted that the church was listed as a “for profit” entity on the renovation proposal filed with the DOB on Aug. 9. Rev. Jackson said this was simply “a mistake.”

Rev. Jackson recently welcomed The Observer to the Manse to share his side of the story. Asked about parents who believe they had been deceived, Rev. Jackson said he “felt very, very badly” and added, “I understand their anger.”

He has offered free buses to drive students to the school’s new location, but the gesture has done little to stop the hemorrhaging numbers. To date, school attendance figures have almost halved, with just over 100 children now on the roll and 96 having defected for elsewhere, including Park Avenue Methodist Day School, St. Thomas More Play Group and IPS. Those who remained committed to the school were initially promised reduced fees, but Mr. Jackson, now facing a potential loss rather than a profit from tuitions, admitted this is no longer an option.

Several families pulled out in early September after the school’s opening was pushed back due to a delay in receiving the necessary permits. The nonsectarian pre-K was not fully operational until Sept. 24, two weeks after the term was set to begin.

One mother said she removed her child from the school “right away” as “the details came in very slowly, so you didn’t even know what you were signing up for if you stayed on.” She has been refunded about half of her tuition fees but said she is “not confident at all” she will receive the rest by Dec. 15, the date by which the church has promised to pay all outstanding refunds—a pledge predicated on the Extell deal.

Both the school and church now see a formal separation as the only way forward. The two bodies are in talks to make this a reality by June 2014. “We want nothing more to do with him or his church,” said a parent. “If we are allowed to operate free and clear of the pastor’s interference, either through a formal separation or an agreement that he just, you know, stays on the East Side and minds his own business, this school’s going to thrive. It’s already the best preschool on the Upper West Side—it has the best teachers and the best connections,” one father said.

Pastor Jackson: "I will not be intimidated."

Pastor Jackson: “I’m not going to be intimidated by anyone.”
(Photo by Celeste Sloman).

The school’s staff now fear for their jobs as, despite initially verbally guaranteeing their positions, Rev. Jackson has told them cutbacks are needed due to the high number of dropouts. “Obviously, we’re going to have to do some restructuring of the school. … We don’t know what that is at this point,” he told The Observer.

School employees also think a split is necessary. “It’s a headache for the church to have us, and it’s a headache for us to have the church at this stage,” one staff member noted. In order to facilitate such a separation, Rev. Jackson said the church is “open to assisting the school with some additional monies” if the deal with Extell goes through. “If [the parents] want the school, we are happy to give it all to them, but they’ve got to take the liability as well as the assets.”

While Rev. Jackson is apologetic about the circumstances, he remains firm in his resolve that the church did the right thing. “We were motivated, because we thought we were doing something in the long run that was in the best interests in the church … and the school,” he said.

Rev. Jackson said the church’s ministry council, a board of nine people, put the plan before the congregation on Aug. 25. Of the 70 people present, only four voted against. “I don’t feel as if I’m out here by myself. This is not Alvin Jackson. This is not my doing. I have listened to the folks for what they want. I think I’m articulating the voice of the community in what we’re doing here,” he said.

***

The church has signed a five-year lease on the UWS building where the school is now located, and those who have made the leap to the West Side say it’s not so bad. “Once we had the children in the hallways, it made a huge difference. It really lifted everybody’s morale,” an employee noted, adding that the church might have enlisted parents’ help in saving the church, rather than alienating them with a stealth move.

“It is sad that our community was broken up because of this,” the employee noted. “The move would have been a lot smoother if they had been honest about it. We could have tried to rally to save the church.”

Complicating things for Rev. Jackson, the deal with Extell has not been finalized. He is “hopeful” it will go through but confirmed the church is looking at other options. Given its choice location, he is confident a buyer will be found, one way or another. “I’m going to see this project through. I’m not going to be intimidated by anyone,” he said. “I’m not going anywhere.”

Church of the Insurrection: Ugly Split Looms for Park Avenue Church and Day School