Posted May 3, 2022 at 2:55pm by West Side Rag
By Carol Tannenhauser
The future of West Park Presbyterian Church at West 86th Street and Amsterdam Avenue will go to court Thursday when the Community Board’s Preservation Committee hears 7 arguments for and against the demolition of the 19th-century listed building.
The church congregation, which owns the building and has shrunk to 12 members, claims demolition of the building is the only way to save the building from financial ruin and complete obliteration as it needs millions of dollars in repairs.
“We have a church where the cost of repairs exceeds the market value of the building after repairs,” Roger Leaf, a community representative, told the Rag. “Hardship Release [from city landmarks officials] offers us a path forward that can enable the community to turn around and become a major institution on the Upper West Side as it has been in the past.”
If city officials allow the church to be demolished, a developer is waiting in the wings willing to use the land for a 19-story condominium that would also reserve prayer rooms for parishioners.
But there are forces who are strongly opposed to turning the church into a pile of red sandstone bricks, and they will argue that the city needs to honor the building’s status as an architectural landmark worthy of preservation.
“This is a dangerous time for NYC landmarks,” said Susan Sullivan, board member of The Center at Park West, a tenant of the church building. “The trend of scrapping historic buildings in favor of high-rises and supertalls is a huge loss to the culture and fabric of our neighborhoods.”
Completed in 1890, West Park was declared an architectural landmark in 2010, meaning proposed changes to the building must be approved by the city’s historic preservation commission. Before consideration by the commission, under the city charter, such changes will be reviewed by local community authorities – in this case by CB7, whose conservation committee will hold a hearing via Zoom on Thursday evening at 6:30 p.m. Here is the link to register.
A Landmarks Preservation Commission report on the hearing that led to West Park’s naming in 2010 says 13 witnesses opposed, including the parish pastor and several members, while 56 were in favor. Pioneering supporters included Gale Brewer, then (and now) a member of the Upper West Side City Council; Bill de Blasio, then also a city councilman; and State Assembly Member Linda Rosenthal. “The commission also received numerous letters and emails in support of the nomination,” the report said, but made no mention of news from the opposition.
The commission voted in favor of the monument despite opposition from the church—and even though the building had been deemed unsafe by the city’s building department eight years earlier. The safety hazard meant the church had to install a sidewalk around the building to protect pedestrians from injury should parts of the facade fall. Twenty-one years later, the shed still surrounds the facade of the building; Apart from emergency repairs, the church was not in a position to afford any major rehabilitation measures.
The strong political support for the West Park Presbyterian landmark is likely based on both the social history of the community and the architectural significance of the building. The church has been a center of activism since the 1980s when it supported the gay rights movement and provided social services to people living with HIV and AIDS. God’s Love We Deliver, a non-profit organization that delivers food to the sick, had its first commercial kitchen there.
Until recently, it seemed as if the protective sidewalk shed would stand forever and the building would continue to decay. Then, in March, Alchemy Properties, a New York City-based developer, made an offer to the community: Alchemy would buy the lot and convert it into a condo with church space — on the condition that the lot be delivered vacant.
Demolition would require the church building to be stripped of its Grade I listed designation. Therefore, the municipality submitted a hardship application to the monument commission, which would lift its obligation to preserve the building; The church estimates that the cost of maintenance would be up to $50 million, with $17 million needed to repair the facade alone.
A decision in favor of the church’s request “would mark a rare turning point for the city board,” Gothamist reported, noting that the commission has only received 19 hardship waiver requests in the past 57 years. According to the Gothamist, 13 have been approved, four have been rejected, and two are pending. K Karpen, co-chair of the Preservation Committee, told the Rag: “This is completely different from what we normally do.”
The Center in Park West
Alchemy’s offer isn’t the only rescue plan for the church, however. The congregation has received another offer from the Center at West Park, a non-profit organization that has rented space at the church since 2010. The center has established a community performing arts center at the church with resident artists and rehearsal and performance spaces for rent. In addition to its artistic goals, the center’s website describes its mission as “leading the restoration of the striking exterior of our historic home.”
To promote its offering, the center ran a media campaign to raise funds for repairs and to rally support for maintaining the building’s landmark status. But The Center’s roughly $2 million offer, cited by a staffer, pales in comparison to developer Alchemy’s $33 million offer [for the lot]plus an additional $8.8 million to complete and furnish a new 10,000-square-foot congregational prayer room, according to Roger Leaf.
Based solely on finances—and the fact that the church has failed to raise funds to save the building in the 13 years since it was designated a landmark—the hardship designation request may seem reasonable.
But how do you measure the value of a 132-year-old church that has been called “one of the finest examples of a Romanesque-style religious structure in New York City”?
Designating the building a landmark, the commission said: “The extraordinarily deep color of the red sandstone cladding and the bold forms of the church, with wide, arched openings and a soaring spire at the corner of West 86th Street and Amsterdam Avenue, create a monumental and distinguished one Presence along these streets.” That would be removed if the city approved the hardship waiver, paving the way for a high-rise condominium at one of the Upper West Side’s key intersections.
But if the exemption is not approved, “it would almost certainly lead to the demise of the community,” says West Park member Roger Leaf. “It would be left to sell the building, probably with no funds or revenue from it, no place to worship and no means to revitalize itself.”
Thursday’s CB7 Committee meeting is open to the public. Committee members will vote on whether to support the hardship waiver motion and their decision will be presented at the next full community board meeting on June 7. Whatever the Board then decides is sent to the Landmarks Commission for consideration at later meetings.
This meeting will also take place this Thursday, May 5, at 6:30 p.m. on Zoom. Here is the link to participate.
Keep an eye out for Friday’s West Side Rag coverage.