ABS exit leaves many NYC ministries homeless

Religion | Organizations must find new homes after the American Bible Society sells its building, “the best Christian real estate in the country”
by Emily Belz
Posted 2/13/15, 09:08 am

NEW YORK—A plaque outside the American Bible Society (ABS) building at 1865 Broadway reads: “American Bible Society has been continuously operating in New York City since its founding on May 11, 1816.”

That longstanding New York presence is coming to an end this summer, when the mammoth Bible-sharing organization will move its headquarters to Philadelphia’s historic center. In announcing the move, the organization (which has had some financial struggles in recent years) cited the high cost of being in New York. ABS will maintain a small office in the city, but it has sold its 12-story building near Columbus Circle for $300 million.

New York is losing an historic ministry, but the Christian community also is losing a building in a city with astronomical real estate prices and very few places for ministries to gather. A number of ministries use and rent space at ABS. And on a casual basis, ABS has been very generous with its space. On the ground floor, it has a coffee shop and lounge anyone can use for work, meetings, or hanging out. Documentarians and reporters filmed interviews in ABS space.Organizations held events there. As an ecumenical organization, it drew many different Christian groups together.

“ABS was a rallying point for Christians in the city,” said Greg Thornbury, president of The King’s College, a Christian university in lower Manhattan.

Thornbury is one of several Christian leaders who thought ABS missed an opportunity by selling its prime real estate. Doug Birdsall, the former president of ABS, concurs. He said ABS had an opportunity to redevelop the real estate into a bigger building that could have been a headquarters for Christian ministries, culture, and business in the city, but the organization balked.

“In New York, the gospel is flourishing, the church is flourishing,” he said. “I wanted ABS to be a part of that. … It meant a lot to a growing church in New York to have a place like that to meet.”

The board fired Birdsall in 2013 over differences in vision. After the firing, Redeemer Presbyterian Church pastor Tim Keller, First Fruit, Inc. board chairman Peter Ochs, and nine other ministry leaders wrote a letter in support of Birdsall and said they were “perplexed and grieved” over ABS’ actions.

Birdsall still speaks warmly of the organization’s work, but said he was explicitly hired to change the “culture” of the institution. Part of his vision was to engage the organization more in the city it had been in for nearly 200 years. When a tenant moved out of the 11th floor of 1865 Broadway, Birdsall opened it up as a collaborative space for other local ministries, and it quickly filled.

“That’s the best Christian real estate in the country,” Birdsall said. “It’s now gone forever.”

In a city where the real estate market is tight, even for those with deep pockets, nonprofits struggle to find enough space for their needs. The King’s College, for its part, is “over-squished,” Thornbury said, and always on the search for residential spaces for students.

“That’s the perennial problem for Christian ministries in the city,” he said. “Every time I talk to my board, I talk about why it’s crucial to be here and why we need real estate.”

Thornbury said the ABS departure, after such a historic role in the city, was especially hard to swallow.

“You have to be in New York City if you want to affect the centers of culture,” he said. “It’s financial institutions, media, film, publishing. … These are the things that change culture and you hope ministries can be in that space. It’s crucial and it’s biblical. The strategy of the apostle Paul was to go to the financial and cultural centers of power. You reach New York City, you reach the world.”

The real estate conglomerate that bought the ABS building, AvalonBay Communities Inc., plans to demolish the building and build a new luxury residential complex, according to The Wall Street Journal.

That’s quite a different outcome than Birdsall had envisioned. Back when he was president, a wealthy Christian entrepreneur was willing to build a new building on the 1865 Broadway real estate, with ABS offices, a conference center, 40,000 square feet of collaborative space, a public arts center, and a hotel—which Birdsall thought would be the “hotel of choice” for Christians in the city on business. ABS could have retained ownership of the real estate. Birdsall said the building would be “resourcing the entire church body of New York City.”

“To say, ‘No thank you,’ to that, and all that represents, and to move to Philadelphia … it can only be described in superlatives: The worst Christian real estate transaction in the history of our young republic,” Birdsall said. He believes the organization was simply playing safe, adding that the decision echoes “the biblical story of the one-talent steward.” 

ABS communications director Andrew Hood said the sale of the building “is going to allow us to accelerate our ministry and our mission in a way that might not otherwise be possible.” He said the organization would continue to partner with ministries in New York, even if the building wasn’t there and that ABS would be working with ministries at its location to find new spaces: “We have strong partnerships with ministries in Manhattan and New York and we’re going to continue those.”

The ministries will need to move out of the building by the end of June, and most of them don’t know yet where they will go.

Young Life New York’s executive staff had its offices at the Broadway building. The group's regional director, Paul Coty, said he is “absolutely” expecting the group’s rental costs to go up. Young Life is thinking about finding an office with the remaining ABS staff, with whom Coty maintains a good relationship. But Young Life also is in office space talks with Nyack College, a Christian university with a campus in lower Manhattan. 

The ABS building also houses the Museum of Biblical Art (MOBIA), which exhibits prominent contemporary art related to the Bible. The 1865 Broadway location was significant for a museum, lying just south of the cultural mecca that is the Lincoln Center. It houses the New York Philharmonic, the Metropolitan Opera, and the Julliard School, among others.

MOBIA will remain in New York, although its staff is unsure where the museum will go. In the past, the museum received substantial financial support from ABS: $1.15 million in 2012, and $1.24 million the year before, according to ABS public financial filings. That financial support comes to an end in June, a plan for “independence” that ABS says the two groups worked out five years ago.

Redeemer’s Center for Faith and Work used space at 1865 Broadway, although the building wasn’t its primary headquarters. Redeemer is in the midst of moving its main offices to a larger space near Rockefeller Center, along with its Center for Faith and Work staff.

Best-selling author Eric Metaxas also worked at the ABS building, with staff for his various projects, including evening lecture series Socrates in the City. For a time, he recorded a radio show, The Colson Center’s Breakpoint, at the ABS location. NY CityServe, an organization born out of the Luis Palau Association that connects churches to “love and serve the city,” also is based out of the ABS building.

Birdsall said his prayer is that ABS will “learn and grow.” He hopes board members and donors at other organizations take note and in the future think with an entrepreneurial mind, with a “willingness to take risk.”

Outside the ABS building sits the bronze statue of Jeremiah Lanphier, a businessman who started a massive prayer revival in New York in the late 1850s, known as the Fulton Street revival or “businessmen’s revival.” ABS said the statue would remain in Manhattan, with the goal of installing it at another Christian ministry.

Emily Belz

Emily reports for WORLD Magazine from New York City. Follow Emily on Twitter @emlybelz.

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