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Legionaries selling Westchester properties

The Thornwood Conference Center in Mount Pleasant.

Financially overextended and looking to shed substantial debt, a conservative Roman Catholic religious order that once had ambitious plans in Westchester County is selling its two properties on about 365 acres that could be returned to the tax rolls with a change of ownership.

The Legionaries of Christ, a 71-year-old congregation founded in Mexico and numbering about 800 priests worldwide, will vacate its headquarters at the Thornwood Conference Center in the town of Mount Pleasant once a buyer for the approximately 265-acre property off Columbus Avenue is found, said Legionaries director of operations Oscar Marroquin. The former IBM property at 582-590 Columbus Ave. went on the market in late October.

In the town of New Castle, the priestly order, shaken in recent years by revelations of its late founder’s history of sexual abuse of boys and fathering of children, has a purchase agreement with a potential residential developer for its nearly 100-acre property at 773 Armonk Road.

The religious nonprofit, incorporated as Legion of Christ Inc., in 1994 paid $3.13 million to acquire the Route 128 property outside Mount Kisco from the Holy Spirit Association for the Unification of World Christianity, commonly known as the Unification Church of the late Sun Myung Moon. The red brick mansion on the secluded estate was built for the celebrated songwriter and theatrical producer Billy Rose.

Though the Legionaries originally envisioned the former showman’s mansion as a seminary training men for the priesthood, the rezoning proposal was opposed by neighboring residents, Marroquin said. The property, operating as Our Lady of Mount Kisco Retreat Center, has been little used by the order since late 2010.

The Legion of Christ has sought a developer and proposed uses for the property since early 2011, Marroquin said. “We actually signed a contract in summer 2011” with a prospective developer, but the deal fell apart, he said.

Since issuing a second request for proposals in July, the Legionaries have reached a pending purchase deal with Steven Oder of Soder Real Estate Equities L.L.C. in Montclair, N.J. Oder is no stranger to Westchester, having served as CEO of NAI Friedland Realty Inc. in Yonkers until leaving the commercial real estate brokerage in 2009.

Oder’s initial development proposal for the site included a 30-room boutique hotel, a restaurant and 20,000-square-foot spa and gym. But in October, after talks with town officials, potential development partners and financiers, he presented to New Castle officials a revised concept for an 80-unit residential development with 37 three-story villas and 43 condominiums. The hotel, restaurant and spa are not included in the new design.

Oder’s attorney, David S. Steinmetz of Zarin & Steinmetz in White Plains, told town officials that portions of the main building would be preserved through adaptive reuse and redevelopment as residential and recreational space and new wings constructed. The development also would include eight additional buildings.

In Thornwood, CBRE Group Inc. is newly marketing the Legionaries’ corporate conference center, a two-building, 410,000-square-foot facility built by IBM Corp. The property, which includes an administrative office building and dormitory and classroom space for seminarians, is being offered for sale as a single site or divided with a 97-acre developed parcel and 167-acre undeveloped tract.

Legion of Christ in 1996 acquired the property from IBM for $33.7 million and took out a $25 million mortgage. In 2009, a year after the death of the order’s disgraced founder, the Rev. Marcial Maciel Degollado, the Legion mortgaged both its Mount Pleasant and New Castle properties with Allied Irish Banks p.l.c. for $37.3 million.

The Legionaries had proposed to develop their larger Thornwood parcel as the site of Westchester University, a Roman Catholic liberal arts institution. Though the owner did extensive environmental studies required for the project in 2008, that plan has been dropped, said Legionaries spokesman Jim Fair. “It was something on the books that we had hoped to do but the demand hasn’t developed for it,” he said.

Fair said the order’s decision to sell its valuable Westchester real estate “is primarily financial. We’re a relatively young religious order. We grew very, very quickly and probably expanded our footprint a little bigger than we needed.” The order also wanted to pay down its debt through the sale of its properties here, he said.

Fair said the sale “probably would have happened anyway” without the scandal that led Pope Benedict XVI two years ago to initiate a Vatican-directed reform of the Legionaries. The scandal did cause “a little bit of a drop in (priestly) vocations” and “exacerbated the financial problems,” he said.

William V. Cuddy Jr., executive vice president at CBRE Group’s Stamford, Conn. office, said the Legionaries completed about 75 percent of the environmental review statement required by the state for the abandoned university project. Those studies could be used by academic institutions to develop the site, he said.

Cuddy said one of the engineering schools that was a runner-up when New York City officials selected Cornell University to develop an engineering and applied science graduate school on Roosevelt Island might be drawn to the existing Thornwood Conference Center as a metropolitan location. “This could be a very interesting solution for them,” said Cuddy, who is overseeing the property sale with CBRE vice president Budd Wiesenberg.

Cuddy said the undeveloped land currently is zoned for single-family homes. “We’re marketing broadly and to a multitude of uses,” he said.

CBRE brokers expect the property to attract interest as well for use as a corporate conference center, senior living and assisted care facility, research and development center and suburban home to film studios.

The property, on which the Legion of Christ as a nonprofit does not pay taxes, “could produce fairly significant ratables” for Mount Pleasant and county government, Cuddy noted. “There is the possibility that this could go on the tax rolls from being off the tax rolls.

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