On a recent overcast afternoon, a group of protesters rallied against gentrification on a sidewalk in Morningside Heights. For a neighborhood that has seen its fair share of upscaling and university-backed land grabs, this isn’t all that rare a sight. What was different about this protest however, was that the signs weren’t calling on the mayor or City Council to intervene, but instead appealing to an altogether different power.
“What would Jesus build?” read one sign. “There are no condos in the Kingdom of Heaven!” read another. Each was held by a student at the Union Theological Seminary, the oldest independent seminary in the United States. The students were protesting a plan by the seminary’s administration to build a luxury condo tower on a corner of the seminary’s quad, forever altering its campus and providing even more accommodations for the wealthy in a city desperate for affordable housing.
“Anyway that they do this, it’s going to perpetuate the gentrification of Harlem,” said Michael Vanacore, a second year master’s of divinity student who was among the protesters.
“I unequivocally oppose this tower, and we have to find another way. Our existence is not so precious that it has to be predicated on the injustice of others. We’re just not that important.”
The administration believes it has already explored every alternative to the condo plan, which has lingered as an option for the financially struggling school for decades. But that idea has never sat well with the student body as well as some members of the faculty (including Dr. Cornel West), who consider the proposed condo to be akin to the biblical “tower of babel”.
“If you lose yourself while gaining the whole world, then what do you gain? You can take a lot of money from real estate developers, but at what cost?” said Dr. Chung Hyun Kyung, an associate professor and alumna of Union Seminary, who believes the condo will be at least as tall as the adjacent Riverside Church—392 feet.
“The core of our school is ethics and spirituality. If we lose our integrity, then what is the meaning of even having this building?”
Since it broke from the Presbyterian church in 1893, Union has been a non-denominational bastion of socially progressive religiosity, most recently throwing its full support behind the Black Lives Matter movement. But the revelation of the condo plan has shaken the school to its ethical core.
On top of that, one of the developers being considered for the project is L+M Development, which does work with contractors who have a history of worker mistreatment including wage theft and unsafe conditions. It also uses non-union labor, straining a strong and long-held relationship between the students at Union and the labor movement.
“If you look into any of these development companies long enough, they all have some sort of violation in their history,” said Fred Davie, Union’s executive vice president.
Davie explained the long history of how Union Seminary ended up in a position where it needs more than $125 million to continue operating. Mainly, the expenses fall to maintaining its facilities. The sale of the seminary’s air rights would provide full funding for a renovation of the entire campus infrastructure.
“For the past 40 years, there has been an absence of a plan for how we’ll pay to maintain our facilities, our funding for students, and our programs. There’s been a patchwork of efforts made, but none have actually solved the problem.”
Davie pointed to the fact that if you added up all the fundraising efforts made since 1965, it would still come nowhere near the amount needed to keep the infrastructure of the school in a state of good repair. On top of that, Local Law 11, which requires building facades to pass an inspection every five years, will cost the institution an additional $45 million to bring the hundred-year-old buildings up to code.
While nominally an affiliate of Columbia University, the seminary, which has 300 students, has no financial connection to the Ivy League institution. Columbia has so far shown no interest in helping the seminary, as many speculate it’s waiting for the seminary to become truly desperate before making an offer for its property. Already Columbia has a 999 year lease for the seminary’s library, as well as shorter leases for other facilities.
Students were outraged by the disclosure of the condo plans so late in the process, but Davie contends that students have been involved in the plans from the very beginning.
“We did focus groups with our students, they helped survey what our needs are, and even made suggestions for the renovations,” Davie said. Student participation in the process ended around a year-and-a-half ago, when developers began submitting confidential proposals (the seminary’s board has yet to select a developer to move forward with the project).
Davie attributes the student reaction to the proposal to the seminary’s “transient student population,” where the students who are now in their first and second years never had an opportunity to have a voice in the plans. He also insisted that the administration is looking into an affordable component for the condo proposal, but doesn’t believe it’s truly the responsibility for an institution like Union Seminary to solve the affordability crisis through its own real estate dealings.
“Part of what we teach here at Union is that by existing in this world, we are called to find our way through paradoxes. And through realism, and compromise, and the imperfect, impure world in which we live,” Davie said. “We do this when we wrestle with our endowment, when we take contributions from very wealthy people.”
As the school moves forward with the condo plan, student opposition to the project has intensified, resulting in the protests last week, as well as an open letter delivered to the school’s president, Serene Jones, with 88 signatures of current students calling for a reconsideration of the plan.
Students have pointed out the similarities between the condo proposal and the ongoing crisis at General Theological Seminary, a seminary affiliated with the Episcopal Church in Chelsea. Facing its own funding shortfall, General Seminary began selling off its properties for luxury condo development, only to find itself still deeply in debt and facing a staff revolt which made national headlines this September. But Davie believes that Union will avoid a similar fate.
“While we still believe in the depths of our soul in social justice and equality and freedom for all people, we want to ensure that this institution is here to continue to create the leaders for those causes,” Davie said.
The condo tower is expected to be built over the course of 3-5 years after the board’s approval, and the first eight stories will be dedicated to housing and facilities for the seminary.
“They used the Black Lives Matter protests last year and our involvement in it as a way to advertise this school to students,” Nancy Taylor, a second-year divinity student told Gothamist. “And now they turn around and do the same thing the police are effectively doing to this community. That’s just the height of hypocrisy.”