An Upper East Side church, simultaneously a site of worship and a lavish event venue, has become a flashpoint of controversy for the Park Avenue neighborhood surrounding it. The Third Church of Christ Scientist, on the corner of Park and East 63rd Street, leases its historic building to the Rose Group, an upscale event production company that has been throwing high-profile events there for the past six years; the building doubles as the venue 583 Park Avenue.
But now that a lengthy court battle initiated by concerned neighbors has ended in the denial of a liquor license to the Rose Group, the owners are grasping for their last resort—a change in state law—in order to keep their business at 583 Park, which they say is the only thing sustaining the church.
The legal troubles began shortly after the Rose Group signed a 20-year lease with the church in 2006. The lease terms specify that the Rose Group pay $250,000 in annual rent as well as 10 percent of the profits from their events, in addition to making costly repairs and paying the building’s property taxes and utilities.
The event company originally obtained the permits to operate based on the legal premise of being an “accessory use” of the church, which has since been challenged, and the latest court decision decreed that the building no longer functions primarily as a church, a decision that some neighbors support but that church members find perplexing.
“It’s obvious those people have never visited us,” said Dora Redman, the clerk and treasurer at the church. “Our services still exist; we’ve never cancelled one.”
While their membership has dwindled over the years, Redman said they still hold Sunday services for around 50 members each week, in addition to Wednesday evening services, Bible study, lectures and conferences that bring crowds in the hundreds. She also confirmed the fact that the church simply cannot afford to operate and maintain the building—the Rose Group said they’ve made $6 million worth of repairs and upgrades to the church—without a revenue-generating tenant.
The characterization of the building as a church matters, because it would grant the Rose Group an exception to the ABC (alcoholic beverage control) law that prohibits the sale of liquor within 200 feet of a school or house of worship—in this case, the Central Presbyterian Church just a block north of 583 Park. Exceptions are given to houses of worship if they themselves sell alcohol as an “accessory use” of the building and the other establishments within 200 feet are doing the same thing and don’t object.
“We made it very clear [what we were doing], we brought it to the community board,” said Louis Rose, the owner of the Rose Group.
“We had the conditionally approved license, we made the deal with the church, we had permission from the buildings department,” said Rose. “We got all the permits, we started the work, we tore the whole place apart, the roof had been leaking for a long time, the cornices in the auditorium had been washed away and melted away from water damage. So we had scaffolding, we took everything apart, and the neighbors woke up about it.”
Rose said that the community first objected to 583 Park covering the name of the church during their events, a move that was demanded by the church and approved by the Landmarks Preservation Commission. From there, community opposition grew louder.
The Department of Buildings rescinded its permits, and the Rose Group sued the city and eventually won when the court found that the city was not treating the church in the same way as surrounding establishments. Meanwhile, however, the conditional liquor license was dependent on getting a certificate of occupancy that they did not have, and the SLA rescinded it.
In 2009, the Rose Group applied for another liquor license. Community Board 8 voted strongly against it, telling the SLA in their resolution that the Rose Group had failed to provide hours of operation and refused to limit the days of use or number of attendees per event, and that the board had heard substantial complaints of noise and traffic problems from neighbors of the largely residential area. A neighborhood organization called the Preservation Coalition formed to oppose the application, and when it was denied, the Rose Group went back to court.
The state Supreme Court decided in their favor, but the neighbors appealed and won, and the Court of Appeals declined to hear the case. Now the SLA will no longer grant single event licenses to 583 Park, which they had been using for years, and they cannot book new events.
For some neighbors, it’s a long-awaited victory. Phyllis Weisberg, the attorney for the Preservation Coalition, said her clients simply want to maintain their residential community and feel that the events at 583 Park are too disruptive.
“When you have 1,000 people arriving on one night at one location in a residential district, obviously it’s a serious problem,” Weisberg said. “The sidewalk is often blocked; people have to go into Park Avenue, into the street.”
Weisberg said that the group opposing 583 Park has involved several area co-op boards as well as individuals, but would not say who exactly composes the Coalition or pays its legal fees. Rose contends that the opposition is only a small minority and speculates that a real estate interest is behind it, a theory Weisberg rejected as “nonsense.”
The Rose Group points to their abundant security measures, efforts to curb traffic and noise—they only load and unload in specified zones on the side streets and limit the hours to the daytime—and few complaints to the 19th Precinct as proof they’ve been good neighbors. But others in the community say that’s not the whole story.
“We hear periodic complaints about the operations including noise and traffic, everything you would expect when a quiet church transforms into a catering facility,” said Council Member Dan Garodnick. “The events at the church are of a size and scale that are beyond any of their immediate neighbors.”
He said that he hasn’t heard from the Rose Group in the past few years, but that he had been involved in trying to broker a compromise early on.
“I spent some time, by the way, trying to explore whether there was a way for the community and the Rose Group to operate in harmony before this whole thing took off, but we did not reach any agreements,” Garodnick said.
Rose said they’ve been working with state elected officials and are open to compromise now, although they are still pushing and hoping for a full liquor license. State Sen. Liz Krueger declined to comment on the issue, but Assembly Member Dan Quart confirmed that he is willing to work with both sides of the dispute.
“If we are to play any role at all, it will be bringing sides together, if a resolution is possible,” Quart said. “My office has certainly been inundated by phone calls, emails and letters from advocates and interested parties on both sides.”
Indeed, the Rose Group has stacks of letters in support of their business enterprise. Rose said that’s because many of their upscale clients’ guest lists are drawn primarily from the community surrounding 583 Park. High-end events like Oscar de la Renta fashion shows and the star-studded Save Venice benefit attract both celebrities and wealthy Upper East Side residents.
“Even people who are against us come to the parties all the time,” said Rose. “It is a remarkable phenomenon.”
Rose said that they’ll apply for a beer and wine license, which has different criteria, if all else fails.
“Maybe 75 percent of our business is charities; they won’t mind the beer, wine, champagne bar. We would certainly survive. I think it would be difficult for weddings, bar mitzvahs, corporate events, holiday parties,” Rose said. “We believe that the building is beautiful; we do not need the liquor. But with that said, it will certainly make us less desirable of an operation.”
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