At 500 Main St. in New Rochelle, there will soon be a 26-floor, high-rise composed of 477 apartment units, with 119 set aside for affordable housing. The building has a projected completion date of fall 2024 and will also be home to a large auditorium that will serve as a small theater or host basketball games – as well as church services.
BRP Cos. is handling development of the site, with construction beginning in February of this year. However, the project is the culmination of the years-long ambition of Rev. Dr. David R. Holder and the New York Covenant Church (NYCC). That a relatively modest church could spearhead such a big project may surprise those not familiar with Holder, the NYCC and their ethos. The NYCC believes in aiding its community economically as well as spiritually. As such, the construction of the building — with a sizable portion dedicated to affordable housing and much of it serving as a venue for educational services and extracurricular activities for youths, fits the NYCC’s wider vision for the downtown community.
Holder was born to a family with a history of pastoral work, he himself now being a “fourth-generation pastor.” He initially distanced himself from this legacy, saying, “I was actually quite cynical about that. So I said, ‘I’m not doing that. I’ll be a good church member at large somewhere.’”
During his formative years, Holder would try to find where his skillset and interest ultimately lay and for a time figured it was business. “I got a job at a management training program at Aetna in Middletown, Connecticut, and I realized I was actually pretty good at most things business and … went over to (the University of California at Los Angeles), and went to business school for two years,” he recalls.
However, during his time at UCLA, Holder concluded that his true calling after all was pastoring. “It really all came together, realizing that I was supposed to be using everything that I’ve experienced in my life to do this one thing. And to plant a church, to start a church from scratch, obviously that’s pretty entrepreneurial.”
This drive to start a church differentiated Holder’s pastoral goals from those of other would-be pastors. When you take over a church, you enter a preexisting culture. “I just knew I wasn’t supposed to fit into a culture,” he says. “That was part of my epiphany, that the culture would be (that) we’ll start from nothing.”
In his quest to establish a church with a new culture, Holder thought the Evangelical Covenant Church (ECC), a denomination with a hands-off approach, met his criteria. “They’re pretty simple. They don’t lord over you as a church. They’re not controlling. The churches are very similar to Baptist churches in the sense that they’re autonomous, but they’re connected.”
Soon the feeling would be mutual. Following the conclusion of a weeklong church planning assessment, the ECC was confident Holder could head one of its churches. “They would evaluate you the whole week, and you’d learn a lot, too,” he says. “I was very impressed, because it kind of felt like I was combining my MBA and my theology degrees.”
In 2004, NYCC purchased 500 Main St. as its new church home. ECC’s financial arm, National Covenant Properties, which uses its own pension plan to fund building projects across the country, was used to make the purchase. Buying a building for a church to flourish in what he saw as an economically forsaken area allowed Holder to assert his pastoral independence and help the underserved, the biblical “least of these.” It is for this reason that NYCC gave serious thought to setting up affordable housing.
“This is a downtown that has gone down over the last number of decades — typical downtown, right across America,” Holder says. In building affordable housing, the NYCC would be part of a larger revitalization effort by the city — an inevitability, Holder figured at the time. “This is going to happen, because the city’s going to be forced to do something, to say, ‘We have to revitalize downtown,’ whatever that means,” he adds. “So, we can be a part of that. That’s what I thought the very first day I saw that property.”
Unfortunately for Holder and his church, the city did not quite see them eye to eye. Though the city council did have revitalization in mind, affordable housing was not part of its vision. “I tried to build affordable housing,” Holder says. “I tried in 2006, 2007, maybe through 2011. So, for four years, we were deep in it.” The city council’s vision of New Rochelle as the “Greenwich Village of Westchester” did not resonate with Holder, who believed that New Rochelle simply needed to be the “New Rochelle of Westchester.” But he nevertheless conceded, putting the church’s plans for affordable housing on the back burner.
Later, the city council would attempt to persuade the church to relocate. Holder had learned the city council wanted him to buy the nearby North Avenue Presbyterian Church, next to the New Rochelle Police Department, effectively moving NYCC off of Main Street. But Holder declined any offers to that effect, having concluded years ago that there is a need for churches in downtown and that NYCC would remain at 500 Main St. Though this development plan came to a seeming halt, Holder reasoned it was temporary. “We knew it was coming,” Holder recalls.
To get ahead of any future plans contrary to NYCC’s vision of spiritual and economic equity, Holder contacted BRP, a Black-owned developer, to help achieve his vision, or come close to it.
BRP’s plan was, however, a compromise Holder initially struggled to accept. BRP’s involvement would result in one-fourth of the apartment units being dedicated to affordable housing, meaning the building project he helped spearhead would mostly be market rate. However, Holder still rationalized that “if we build affordable housing, or, partly, one-fourth of apartments, that’s an opportunity for someone who couldn’t afford to live in downtown New Rochelle who was local (and from) Westchester.”
Holder was heartened by the realization that NYCC’s plans for 100% affordable housing would have included 120 apartment units. So, an extra 358 market-rate apartment units aside, NYCC’s vision of 120 apartment units did come true — almost. In the end, 119 affordable housing units will be built, just one unit shy of the 120 goal, much to Holder’s amusement.
“God has a great sense of humor,” he says. “One-fourth of 477 is not too bad. And I think it’s good for people with different incomes to live in the same place. I think that’s what community really is.”
Beyond initiating the project, Holder contributed immensely by facilitating and brokering relationships and negotiations. In business, he says, “you have to have relationships, or you have to develop the relationship.” Thus, when BRP required the purchase of Dollar Best, a dollar store next to the church in order to move ahead with its plans, Holder stepped in and spoke with the owner, who was uninterested in real estate and even BRP’s work next door.
Additionally, NYCC assisted in securing BRP’s purchase of the French Speaking Baptist Church of New Rochelle, also next to the old 500 Main St. building. Though of different denominations, NYCC was better at connecting with the church in a cultural way than the developer would be, Holder reasoned. However, negotiations went on for about a year, delaying the project. The purchase was nonetheless hugely important, resulting in more room for construction.
The project has progressed without incident or major delay since the beginning of 2022. In the meantime, the congregation has continued services at First Baptist Church in 407 New Rochelle Road, Bronxville. The church’s pastor, Lamont Granby, has welcomed the NYCC congregation with open arms and will allow the members to use its facilities and hold services every Sunday morning until the completion of the new building at 500 Main St. “They’ve been awesome,” Holder says, “I can’t say enough about First Baptist.”
For more, visit newyorkcovenant.com.