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Church Split on How to Manage $2 Billion Legacy of a Queen

Sharon Otterman
Thursday, 25 Apr 2013 | 9:39 AM ET
Trinity Church in Lower Manhattan, New York.
Katherine Ziegler | Image Bank | Getty Images
Trinity Church in Lower Manhattan, New York.

There has never been any doubt that Trinity Church is wealthy. But the extent of its wealth has long been a mystery; guessed at by many, known by few.

Now, however, after a lawsuit filed by a disenchanted parishioner, the church has offered an estimate of the value of its assets: more than $2 billion.

The Episcopal parish, known as Trinity Wall Street, traces its holdings to a gift of 215 acres of prime Manhattan farmland donated in 1705 by Queen Anne of England. Since then, the church has parlayed that gift into a rich portfolio of office buildings, stock investments and, soon, mixed-use residential development.

The parish's good fortune has become an issue in the historic congregation, which has been racked by infighting in recent years over whether the church should be spending more money to help the poor and spread the faith, in New York and around the world. Differences over the parish's mission and direction last year led nearly half the 22-member vestry — an august collection of corporate executives and philanthropists — to resign or be pushed out, after at least seven of them asked, unsuccessfully, that the rector himself step down.

Over the years, the church has sold or given away much of the original 215 acres from Queen Anne, but it has 14 acres, including 5.5 million square feet of commercial real estate.

It reported $158 million in real estate revenue for 2011, the majority of which went toward maintaining and supporting its real estate operations, the financial statement indicates. Of the $38 million left for the church's operating budget, some $4 million was spent on communications, $3 million on philanthropic grant spending and $2.5 million on the church's music program, church officials said. Nearly $6 million went to maintain Trinity's historic properties, including the main church building, which was built in 1846; St. Paul's Chapel; and several cemeteries, where luminaries including Alexander Hamilton and Edward I. Koch are buried. The remainder went into the church's equity investment portfolio.

Trinity Church's Deep Secrets
A graveyard tour of Trinity Wall Street's 300-year old cemetery, with Leah Reddy, Trinity Wall Street.

Critics argue that the church could have a higher profile as a beacon of charity and Episcopal belief. "I felt that the church was being too corporate and wasn't acting on its values," said Jeremy C. Bates, the congregant who filed the lawsuit and a former leader of the church's Congregational Council.

But not all parishioners agree.

"Given the resources, I think they do exactly what they should be doing," said Susan V. Berresford, a current member of the vestry and the former head of the Ford Foundation. "This, I think, is a first-class philanthropic operation and one that is using its resources very wisely."

The vast majority of the parish's property is in Hudson Square, a commercial neighborhood next to the Manhattan entrance to the Holland Tunnel. These days, the area's hulking prewar industrial buildings, designed for use by printing companies, are increasingly occupied by creative and technology companies, with restaurants and galleries on the street level.

"The Trinity Church properties are now among the most valuable in all of New York City, because they are sitting on the edge of the hottest neighborhoods in the city — SoHo, TriBeCa and Greenwich Village," said Mitchell L. Moss, a professor of urban policy and planning at New York University. "Trinity has been either very wise or very prudent, but they have let the market mature around them, and now they are ready to take advantage of it."

The church, which calls itself "one of the largest landowners in Manhattan," has also been building an equity investment portfolio that was worth about $160 million in 2011. And the value of Trinity's real estate holdings is expected to grow because rezoning of much of the church's land will allow up to 3,200 new residential units, with the first large project planned for Duarte Square on Canal Street.

"The legacy of Queen Anne is that Trinity Church is going to prosper in the 21st century," Mr. Moss said. "Who says that the empire doesn't live on?"Mr. Bates, who says he wants the church to be more accountable to its members, argues in his lawsuit that the parish vestry, which acts largely as Trinity's board of directors, is being elected contrary to the terms of the church's original 1697 charter.

Mr. Bates claims that each vestry candidate must receive a majority of parishioners' votes to be elected. The church says that even one "yes" vote is enough if the candidate is uncontested; all the seats are uncontested. The parish has asked for the suit, filed in State Supreme Court in Manhattan, to be dismissed. The dispute over spending and governance is, in part, a dispute over the leadership of the Rev. James H. Cooper, who has been the church's rector since 2004.

"You have diminished Trinity Church, and you have created a glaring atmosphere of deceit," wrote one longtime vestry member, Lorraine LaHuta, in her 2012 resignation letter.

The vestry resignations last year caused a minor media splash, as did Trinity's tumultuous relationship with the Occupy Wall Street protests in 2011. Trinity gave refuge and bathroom space to protesters at a community center, Charlotte's Place, but then stood by as protesters were arrested for trespassing on the part of Duarte Square owned by the church. The protesters were furious, and camped out outside Trinity for months.

Mr. Cooper, 68, weathered the storms, and this year helped select a new vestry more supportive of his leadership. But he also announced in February that he was planning to resign in 2015 — a decision he called unrelated to the recent turmoil. He said he believed the rezoning, which could turn Trinity's holdings into a more vibrant neighborhood, would be remembered as one of the major accomplishments of Trinity during his time as rector.

The church agreed with one complaint in the lawsuit: Mr. Bates's assertion that he should be entitled to see the church's financial statement. The 2011 statement was released to the public in March; the 2012 statement is due out in May.

Trinity has released other estimates of its wealth over its 315-year history, but none recently. From 1909 to 1939, parishioners could find bare-bones annual statements at their pews; before that, the last disclosures beyond the vestry were in 1814.

"Trinity is moving more and more toward a transparent, modern system of governance, though not without bumps and bruises and pain," said Mr. Cooper, adding that he supported the disclosure.

Some details are not included on the form, church officials said, like Mr. Cooper's $475,000 annual salary — which rises to a total compensation of $1.3 million when his pension and the estimated cost of his residence in a $5.5 million, church-owned SoHo town house are added. For at least some of the defecting vestrymen — who complained Mr. Cooper was circumventing them in decision-making, subverting a review of his leadership and de-emphasizing religious education and philanthropy while obsessing about reconstructing the church's administrative headquarters at 74 Trinity Place — those numbers rankle.

Mr. Cooper said he believed the church had the right balance between ministry, charity and its real estate business.

"Of course I do, and so does the current vestry," he said, adding that the goal of nurturing Trinity's property holdings is to increase the future operating budget for philanthropy and church operations.

The church's annual grants, some of which go to support parishes in Africa, remained stable during the recent recession, he added, and were now at $3.2 million, their highest level since 1991. In addition, he said nearly all of Trinity's spending — from its free concerts to its open doors to hosting millions of tourists a year — was a "gift to the city."

Mr. Cooper seemed tired as he sat surrounded by portraits of former rectors in a church office. "I'm a strong believer that leadership has seasons, and my season is in the eighth or ninth inning of the game," he said.


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  • A reporter and editor, Robert Frank is a leading authority on the American wealthy for CNBC.