Adaptive Reuse of the Dutch Reformed Church
into the Jamaica Performing Arts Center
Queens, New York, NY
By Robert A. Simons
This case describes the renovation of the empty First Dutch Reformed Church at
153-04 Jamaica Avenue in Queens NY, originally built in 1859, into an additional facility
of the Jamaica Center for Arts and Learning (JCAL), in the form of a new 400 seat
theater: the Jamaica Performing Arts Center (JPAC). The project has taken over ten
years to bring from idea conception to occupancy. JCAL is projected to occupy the
building in early 2009. The $20.85 million project is sponsored by the City of New York
Department of Cultural Affairs, who put together internal funding from a number of city
sources, including substantial leadership from the Queens office of Borough President,
Mayor and City Council. The Greater Jamaica Development Corporation championed
and nursed the project from the perspective of community acceptance. The NYC
architecture and engineering firm of Wank Adams Slavin Associates LLC (WASA) was
the lead architect and designer for the 18,000 square foot project on @1.5 acres. JCAL
has a strong record of service in the community and this is a second facility they have in
their service area to expand artistry and programming. JCAL is renting the building from
NYC for $1 per year, and will be coordinating JPAC’s programming.
“Originally built in 1859, the First Reformed Church at 153rd and Jamaica Avenue
in Queens, N.Y. was a Romanesque Revival structure featuring two asymmetrical towers.
There was a major addition in about 1902, which was later torn down in about the 1960s”
(Pedalka 2006). The building sits on about 1.5 acres, and before renovation had a
shallow basement, one large sanctuary of about 8,000 square feet, and some smaller
The location is along a busy commercial street in Queens, NY, about a ½ hour
subway ride from Manhattan. The site has excellent access: it is very close to the E line
NYC subway, as well as the Long Island Rail road.
About the same time the congregation using the church moved into another
church in the same neighborhood in the early 1970s, a ten acre site including the church
was designated as an Urban Renewal area by the City Of New York because there was a
need for the Social Security Administration (SSA, a federal agency) to locate an office
complex in the area, a move that was supported by the Greater Jamaica Development
Corporation (GJDC) the local economic development not-for-profit entity. In the original
proposal, the Social Security Administration was going to employ a bridge and use the
church as its auditorium, partly because then-Senator Patrick Moynihan liked public art.
Eventually, the SSA built their project without the church, opting instead for an internal
auditorium. As part of this process the City acquired the church and grounds at fair
market value from the Dutch Reformed Church. After the SSA plans proceeded without
the church property, the City retained ownership. They nominally maintained it and tried
to find a user, and leased the property out to another church group from about 1980-1990,
but the facility sat vacant for many years (Towery 2008). “Without regular maintenance,
the structure's slate roof, stained-glass windows, brownstone, sandstone, and terra cotta
began falling apart” (Pedalka 2006). The property was overlooked and underutilized, and
waiting for a champion.
Market Area Demographics
The Jamaica Performing Arts Center is located in Queens County, NY. Queens is
the largest in area and the second most populous of the five boroughs1 of New York City,
New York, USA. According to the 2000 U.S. Census, Queens County had a total
population of 2,229,379. The City Data website estimated about 2% increase in
population (2,270,338) in the County from the year 2000 to 2007. The Jamaica
Performing Arts Center is located in a census tract that had a total population of 5,748 in
2000. It has a racial mix of white (26%) with rest of the people being African American
(21.0%), American Indian (1.0%) Asian (9.0%) and others (43%) in the year 2000
(Source: www.census.gov). Queens County has the largest Asian American population
outside of the western United States, ranking 5th among US counties (Source:
The census tract is where JPAC is located contains many young professionals.
About 42% of the population is in the 22-39 age group, 23% belong to 40 – 59 years,
18% are kids below 11years, 14% of the residents belong to 11yrs to 21 yrs and about a
low 9.0% are over 60yrs. Thus, about one third of the population is in a prime
theatergoer age group. The tract median household income in 1999 was $31,943, much
lower than that of the County ($42,439), and Queens County household income
increased to $53,171 by the year 2007.
A borough is a unique form of government which administers the five fundamental constituent parts that
make up the consolidated city (Source: www.wikipedia.com)
About 7.3% of the people of age above 25 years of age in the tract, hold a
Bachelor’s degree or higher, which is far less than for the County (24.3%). 37.4% are
high school graduates, being less again than the average for the County (50%). The tract
has an unemployment rate of 7.0%, greater than the County rate of 5.0% (US Census
In the year 2000, there were 1,651 households in the Buffer, of which 82 % were
two person households. That figure is higher than for the County (74.4%). The entire
tract seemed to have more live and work environment.
The multifamily housing market in the tract is dominated by rental housing with
total units of 1,717. The total rental housing market is further dominated with 37.4% of
One-bed room units with asking rents between $500 and $1,000 (in 2000). This
observation endorses the previous observation of young professionals living in the area.
The there are also at least four colleges within a mile distance of the site.
The project is funded through the NYC Department of Cultural Affairs (DCA),
and managed through the NYC Department of Design and Construction (DDC). At this
time, DCA has about 400 projects of all types underway, and several are major adaptive
reuse projects with cultural end users. DCA funds projects that strengthen an
organization’s capacity to provide high quality cultural services to the public, hence
generating substantial social (rather than financial) return. This includes projects with
positive externalities in encouraging economic activity, enhancing quality of life, and
sustaining NYC’s reputation as a world-class cultural capital. The DCA provides
programming and operating support for more than 900 cultural organizations, including
city museums, the botanic garden, theaters, arts educations, and city zoos. Of these 900
organizations, 33 cultural institutions are on city-owned property and receive substantial
general operating funds through DCA, and JCAL is one. DCA already has an operating
agreement with JCAL from its existing operations in Queens. The new JPAC facility is
expected to attract artists and audiences to engage in a broad array of cultural activities
from Queens and beyond. The actual programming is left up to JCAL. DCA places no
quota or expectations on JCAL output, other than adhering to agreed-to management and
governance practices (deRosset 2008).
According to Anita Segarra, JCAL deputy Director, JCAL was in on project
design from the beginning. The project started with an $8 million dollar budget in the
late 1990s, and grew to about $21 million in 2008. The 400 seat theater was believed to
fit a strategic niche between the existing 99 seat theater at JCAL’s other Queens facility,
and the 1,000 seat theater at York College, a few blocks away. This theater size, plus a
conference/business center were core to the project, although the business Center use’s
importance shrank over time. JPAC, JCAL’s performing arts subsidiary, plans to use the
facility several times a week for various performing art and cultural performances. JCAL
will also rent out the building to other local non-profits and individuals. This will
supplement JCAL’s income. Overall, JCAL expects the building to be used 4-5 nights a
week (Segarra 2008).
With these stakeholders, the project was moved forward. After 8 dormant years,
“to prevent the church from deteriorating completely, three local cultural groups - the
Jamaica Center for Arts and Learning, the Cultural Collaborative of Jamaica, and the
Black Spectrum Theater (worked together) to save the structure (Pedalka 2006)”.
Beginning in about 1998, these players coordinated with the NYC Department of
Cultural Affairs and Greater Jamaica Development Corporation (GJDC) to spearhead
transformation of the church property into a performing arts center. They btained a grant
of over $10 million from the Queen Borough President's office, which eventually funded
about half of the project cost.
However before this major push for the project in 1998, a lot of “babysitting” was
needed (Towery 2008). The building had been vandalized, and the stained glass
damaged. This work fell largely to GJDC, who cleared the debris and small outbuildings
away from the church leaving only the original structure. The church was also too close
to 153rd St., which was right at the edge of the building. GJDC arranged for the street to
be straightened out. This modernization was important for marketing the building to
potential users. In all, GJDC spent 12 years nursing the building, (before eventually
turning it over to JCAL in about 2007). GJDC spent about $12,000-15,000 per year
cutting grass, doing maintenance, and marketing and promoting the building. GJDC got
a foundation grant to study appropriate uses and determined though a market study that a
performing arts center was the best outcome (Towery 2008).
The building’s champion was Queens Borough president Claire Shulman, who
found the initial public money to restore it. According to DCA’s Victor Metoyer, this
meant that, in New York City internal politics, that the Queens Borough President
“owned” the project (i.e., was in the driver’s seat, and was the lead in ensuring the project
would get completed). Her successor, Borough President Helen Marshall, later allocated
additional public money to sustain the project’s momentum.
Development plan and Project Design
Tendering of an architect and the design process was not a smooth one. The
project called for a building of 18,000 square feet, with an 8,000 square foot footprint.
The original architectural design firm, who led the project for several years, lost the
confidence of the stakeholders, and was replaced with WASA. “The adaptive reuse
design, drafted by Wank Adams Slavin Associates of New York, incorporates a 325-seat
main floor, 75-seat balcony, new lobby, and an overhanging third-floor conference room
that evokes box seating at sports games. The team also hired Peter George Associates of
Haddonfield, N.J., to help prepare a design that included theater-quality acoustics”
Once WASA settled into a design scheme with the stakeholders, there were also
some major design and construction issues with the project’s underground foundation,
which had to be expanded to accommodate support space. In addition to the beautiful
and acoustically desirable ground floor theater space itself, the project had a multi-story
“smart” tower with the building’s electronics, and a “wow” lobby to welcome visitors.
This section describes the development process generally chronologically, and from the
Administratively, WASA’s contractual client on this project is the NYC
Department of Design and Construction (DDC), the City agency that executes hiring and
administers construction. The NYC Department of Cultural Affairs (DCA) is DDC’s
internal (NYC ) client, and provides funding for the project (contractually administered
by DDC) on behalf of JCAL. The WASA firm is over 100 years old, and has had
extensive experience with performing arts centers, and rehabbing old buildings.
According to Douglas Emilio, WASA’s preservation architect for the project, a notable
recent project is the adaptive reuse of the 135th Street Gatehouse as the Harlem Stage,
located on Manhattan’s west side in New York City, which is a similar rehab into a
performing arts center. WASA also has architecture, engineering, and preservation
functions in-house. The NYC office has performed hundreds of preservation and rehab
projects within the last 5 years. WASA was invited into the project in 2003. After four
presentations at Queens Borough hall on project design, the community stakeholders
were on board. Another motive of these presentations was to demonstrate community
support in order to facilitate obtaining additional funds from the Queens Borough
President (Calin 2008). This was successful.
Lowering the basement floor was the source of considerable difficulty and delay.
The lower level design calls for about 8,000 SF for a coat check office, small lounge for
refreshments, pantry, restrooms, dressing rooms, practice space, a prop entrance and an
off-stage waiting room. The design arranged for fitting all of those elements into a cellar
that was originally only 5½ feet deep, requiring significant work to "raise" the ceiling by
digging a deeper base. Also, a full 10 foot depth was needed for the rest of the
foundation. The project team dropped the foundation by more than 4 ft. to create the
design's 10-ft. cellar.
To accomplish this task, the crew dug holes under the perimeter wall in a
checkerboard pattern, filling in the first "squares" with concrete, and then repeating the
process for the remaining squares to complete the new, deeper wall. It also excavated the
main floor area of the rest of the basement to the lower depth. However it was determined
that the existing building footings were insufficient, and additional underpinning for more
than half the building was needed. This presented technical challenges, and the effort to
shore up and expand the foundation lasted six months, cost about $0.5 million, and
wrapped up in spring of 2006.
There was some danger involved. According to WASA Lead Architect Mircea
Calin, the ground level wood joint floor was holding up the sides of the building, which
were essentially a 2 foot thick brick wall shell. The architects had to remove the first
floor to do their business in the basement, but then the building could potentially fall
down. It was necessary to pour a new 50’ x 100’ concrete first floor on top of the
existing wood floor before excavating. At the same time, new concrete posts down to
new basement finish floor (10 feet down) were poured, and then a second concrete
basement floor was created. When the concrete slab and column reached the required
structural strength, the existing wood floor and columns were removed. The side walls,
in 2-4 foot sections, were very carefully backfilled to maintain the integrity of the
underpinning (Calin 2008).
This 4 story interior structure was all new. The first floor of the project includes
the entry hall, box office, office, stage (with storage underneath) and 325 seats. The seats
are on moving platforms that telescope in and out. The theatre has a flat floor, and the
telescoping of the raised seats gives height. The entry hall has stunning stained glass and
modern artwork, and is breathtakingly beautiful. Inside the main seating area, the
architects saved a few of the pews for historical accents, but there is all new seating.
They salvaged a few balcony support cast iron columns and front fascia for aesthetic
purposes, and replicated the crown molding look from the original ceiling at 30 feet.
Above ground, all the electronic component systems (e.g., the “brains” of the
building) were incorporated into a 34 foot high one story shell, not including the attic and
steeple. WASA essentially built a mechanical tower inside the building. The second
floor/mezzanine contains 75 balcony seats. It also has the control room and an office. It
sits over part of the theater. The architects removed the historic balcony face inside, put
it back further out on the second floor.
The third floor has an office, bathroom, and a conference room. This feels (to the
author) like an owners’ suite at a major league ballpark: a donor “wow” zone. This fine
venue is available for internal and external meetings. The fourth floor contains the attic
mechanicals. It also has two hard-sucking, sensitively designed, copper-clad roof dormer
cut outs for HVAC supply and air return. There is also a tension grid (catwalk), where all
the lighting, sound, equipment is located. It’s a transparent 50’ x 100’ feet grid, and you
can walk on it.
Building Code compliance was a challenge. There was only one exit to the street
inside. To alleviate concerns about fire safety, the team built an internal “safe area”, with
separate HVAC, enough room for folks to stay as they file out, in case of a fire. This safe
zone also creates a nice, open feeling in the building by exposing two monumental open
stairways . This safe area is a first floor foyer: the alternative was a claustrophobic
Reconstruction of the building exterior had to consider the church's landmark designation
from city, state, and federal preservation bodies. The team replaced the entire slate roof
and, because of extensive damage, added new supports. All of the exterior brick needed
repositioning or replacement, said Leonard Franco, WASA’s partner-in-charge of the
project (Pedalka 2006).
For HVAC, it was decided to perforate the roof with small semi-hidden dormers,
using traditional materials. The Landmark commission said OK. They also allowed a
modest sized HVAC unit outside, to be sheltered by vegetation.
Meeting landmarks requirements was a core part of the redesign. Certain elements
that would have been cost-prohibitive required extra negotiating, said Louie Rueda,
deputy commissioner of the design and construction agency. "All of the exterior will be
reconstructed to comply with landmark requirements," he added. "The landmarks
commission is pretty flexible. They worked with us." (Padalka 2006)
One of the inventive changes from those negotiations involved replacing the
stained-glass windows lining the auditorium with acoustically insulated glazed glass
panels, complemented with electronically controlled shades to filter out light. The team
also salvaged enough stained glass to supplement the three damaged windows facing
Jamaica Avenue, those in the main lobby, as well as the back window of the (third floor)
conference center and two smaller windows on the sides” (Padalka 2006). Of the 13
stained glass windows in the building at time of redevelopment, (mostly in bad shape),
the team relocated the best 3 pieces in front, one in each mechanical stair tower. In the
theater itself, it was decided to not install stained glass because the acoustic objective was
to keep art sounds in and any airport noise out. Hence, the rest of the former stained glass
windows went back to original congregation, located a few blocks away (Emilio 2008).
One late problem in the summer of 2007 set back the opening of the building back
until September of 2008. This involved the basement, which flooded twice during
construction due to a backflow device not being properly installed. This is not an
uncommon occurrence in older city that have combined storm water and sewage systems.
In August 2008, PMS, the on-site construction manager, was in the process of installing
23,000 gallons of water retention storage tanks to avoid future flooding.
From the perspective of the project, this is a straight public subsidy plus deal. It is
funded with all NY City funds. The deal is structured with the City of New York owning
the building, with an operating agreement that has JPAC as the tenant.
The total sources of funds for the project (as of September 2008) are $20.85
million. The bulk came from the Queens Borough President’s office ($10.7 million), with
NY City Council and the NYC Mayor’s office kicking in $4.6 million and $5.1 million,
respectively. The funds were rounded out with a State of NY grant for $450,000. From
the deal perspective, the project is all equity, no debt. However, NYC capital dollars are
bond financed. Despite the fact that the building is on the historic register, no historic
credits, new market tax credits, or tax abatement were used (Metoyer 2008).
Construction costs, totaled $1,158 per square foot, of which the bulk was hard
costs. The cost of project acquisition (in about 1973) was minimal, The JPAC cost
breakdown is as follows: soft costs (consultant design fees and DDC IFA fees) $2.49
million (12%, or $138 per square foot); and hard costs (construction, construction
manager fees and equipment) $18.36 million (88%, or $1,020 per square foot).
Some costs, like project maintenance over time by GJDC, are excluded.
The City of New York receives $1 per year, on a ten year operating agreement,
with a ten year renewal option. From a real estate perspective, this is a pure subsidy deal.
DCA further supports JCAL operations with subsidies for utilities and operating expenses.
DCA, the Borough of Queens, and GJDC all desire that JPAC has an important impact on
nurturing and sustaining the performing arts community in Queens, and hope they will do
well in terms of attracting even greater audiences. As a matter of policy, the City sets no
formal set, quantified thresholds for the City’s return on this social investment from
programming at this facility.
At the end of the ten-plus year development process, this is a top-of-the line,
stunning community asset. Only time will tell if JPAC can make a success of this project,
but upon initial occupancy it appears that the physical structure is more than up to the
Rehab construction challenges can be overcome with careful planning and precise
implementation. For example, retrofitting basements are very tricky, but even backfilling
a basement under a 150 year old building is possible with the right engineering expertise.
Projects can take a long, long time to come to fruition in a complex political
environment like New York City. Patience, perseverance, and teamwork (plus a lot of
money) are needed.
Despite the stunning physical structure, the project cost $21 million for an 18,000
SF project, over $1,000 per square foot. While this may seem at the high end of normal
for a large city with high real estate values, others in the hinterland will undoubtably
seem amazed at the huge resources expended for a single project, with the financial, on-
budget return of $1 per year. Only in NYC!!!
Emilio, Douglas. WASA Senior Associate and Associate Director of Preservation,
project manager, personal interview June 2008.
Calin , Mircea. WASA Director of Architecture and lead project architect, personal
interview June 2008.
deRosset, Kate. City of New York Department of Cultural Affairs, Director of Policy and
External Affairs, personal interview, June 2008.
Metoyer, Victor. City of New York Department of Cultural Affairs, Deputy Director of
Capital Projects, personal interview, June 2008.
Pedalka, Alex. Historic Church Undergoes a Conversion into a New Arts Center.
Segarra, Anita. Deputy Director JCAL, telephone interview July 2008.
Thayer, Tim. City of New York Department of Cultural Affairs, Assistant Commissioner
for Cultural Institutions, personal interview, June 2008.
Towery, Carlisle. Executive Director, Greater Jamaica Development Corporation.
telephone interview July 2008.
FIGURES TO BE ATTACHED
Fig 1 Map of area (Subha)
Demographics for theater goers
Fig 2 Parcel site map (Subha)
Fig 3 bird’s eye view (Subha)
Fig 4. Floor plan (Douglas)
Fig 5 sketch of basement shore-up plan (Douglas)
Fig 6 nice shot of main theater floor (Douglas)
Fig 7 interior feature shot of entry way (Roby)
Fig 8 another interior entry way shot (Roby)
Fig 9 financials (Victor for final sources and uses of funds)