CHURCH-TO-CONDO PROJECT REMAINS IN LIMBO; ANOTHER REGULATORY FIGHT

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A rendering of the church after conversion by Gerner Kronick + Valcarcel Architects.

Developers who want to turn the former First Church of Christ, Scientist on 96th street and Central Park West into condos won approval in March from the Landmarks Preservation Commission after a tough fight. But one more regulatory agency, the Board of Standards & Appeals, stands in its way, and the battle could delay or even squash the project entirely. That board decides on changes to zoning rules for individual properties.

Landmarks West and some neighbors continue to fight the project, saying the structure should be turned into a museum or put to some other more community-friendly use, according to NY YIMBY.

“We do not sacrifice our historic monuments,” said activist Susan Simon, adding that the proposal was “ill-conceived.” Architect and neighbor Luis Salazar said the church is not “functionally obsolete” and that the conversion would “permanently alter” the character of the community.

The New York Landmarks Conservancy and a neighbor spoke out in favor of the project, however, saying it was “appropriate treatment.”

Proponents and opponents will submit new proposals — the BSA wants to be “dazzled” — that will be voted on Jan. 12, 2016.

NEWS, REAL ESTATE | 23 comments | permalink
    1. Fred says:

      There are several churches on CPW. I wonder if there are enough congregants for these churches to keep them viable.

      The land these churches occupy is worth a fortune and I think we’ll be seeing a lot more church to apartment conversions on CPW in the coming years. Else, we might be seeing similar situations like Habonim on West 66th street in which a sanctuary is torn down and will be rebuilt on the ground floor of a newly constructed apartment tower.

    2. Paul RL says:

      And how would this “permanently alter the character of our community?” Former church or not, it is an empty building and has been for some time. If the detractors get their way, and the BSA squashes the project, we’ll be stuck with nothing, because wishing for a museum to appear out of thin air is a pipe dream. Something tells me that opponents of this project are less concerned about keeping it a church or community space than keeping the evil condo-buying rich folks out of our neighborhood. The West 90s has more important things to worry about than that. I like the fact that people want to invest in and live here and hope the project moves forward.

    3. Neighbor says:

      Adaptive use of such buildings is important. So, however, are zoning restrictions and designations as historic and/or landmarked buildings. The proposed project falls far short of meeting the legal requirements for a variance. This Carrere & Hastings structure, with opalescent stained glass windows facing promised destruction, is too historically and artistically significant for this particular proposal. We should not imagine that the only possibilities are this plan vs. dereliction. That’s a false dichotomy.

    4. Neighbor says:

      Adding: there were non-profits that were interested in this property.

      • Jay says:

        Which ones? How much were they willing to pay?

        Do you know what specific legal requirements that this project does not meet for a zoning change?

        • Neighbor says:

          During BSA hearings it was said that the Children’s Museum had been in talks with the developer. The developer’s team said that several non-profits had been interested but that nothing had panned out. One of the people opposed to the plan said the price offered to the Children’s Museum was $51 million; the building was sold to the developer in the high 20s, with various, disputed other acquisition costs.

        • Neighbor says:

          Jay, I don’t know all the specific zoning restrictions that have to be nullified in order for the building to be converted to a multiple dwelling. One of them is the law that a corner building of this configuration (no big interior courtyard), as a multiple dwelling, must have LR and BR windows thirty feet from the property line, for light and air. Many of the church windows are about three feet from the property line. I think there are other problems with alleys and egress in case of fire. There will be noise and light pollution; I am not sure what zoning restrictions affect those issues.

    5. Distressed says:

      As a near neighbor I am, realistically, resigned to “adaptive reuse”. But this developer’s plan for 39 condos is highly detrimental to the church building and to the neighborhood. Many of the floor plans are downright weird –1300 SF one-BR units with a single window? 4000 SF 2-BR with 4 bathrooms and 2 laundry rooms? No wonder variances to housing code requirements are required to proceed. If the BSA green lights this project, church-condo owners on the north side of the building as well as their neighbors would be replicating the nose-to-nose living conditions of old-style tenements. How about a few loft-like luxury dwellings that respect and showcase the building’s original architectural beauty? There are numerous examples of this throughout the city.

      Oh, and @Paul RL: re: “keeping the evil condo-buying rich folks out of our neighborhood”, that train left the station long ago.

    6. Cato says:

      You mean “quash” the project, not “squash” the project.

      Unless the Sta-Puft Marshmallow Man takes to Central Park West again, we’re not going to see this building “squashed”.

      • geoff says:

        cato, how can you be sure of what the writer means?

        we will not see this building ‘squashed’, but we might witness the idea ‘squashed’.

        not everyone thinks of ‘squashed’ in the restrictive way you do—some have a broader sense of the word and some dictionaries report that.

        here are a few: suppress, stifle, or subdue (a feeling, conjecture, or action); firmly reject (an idea or suggestion).

        • Cato says:

          Sorry, I was just going by standard English. No dictionary that I know of defines “squash” to mean any of the things you now present as its meanings. It’s an increasingly common misuse of the word “squash”, but OK — play by your own rules.

          • geoff says:

            when it comes to speaking english, personal rules tend to obscure clear communication. these definitions are sourced from the New Oxford Dictionary and the Oxford American Writer’s Thesaurus, American English, they aren’t my rules.

            apparently there is no misuse, all that’s left is your misunderstanding.

            still, your apology to the writer is appropriate.

    7. This is a square peg being fit into a round hole. The developers have made an incredible effort to preserve the look and character of the building. Any kind of change of use would be difficult to achieve with the issues and constraints of the site. To call this solution detrimental to the community is absurd.

      • Neighbor says:

        As law and zoning regs are written, this project is not entitled to a variance, because the hardship is a consequence of zoning restrictions. If a variance is granted anyway, zoning restrictions are effectively gutted. The principle that zoning restrictions can be overturned by agencies would be a bad one for neighborhoods all over the city.

      • Pedestrian says:

        Actually, they’ve made very little effort. Their design lacks creativity and is simply a wack up job to make MONEY. They paid more than the building was worth and then tried to argue they paid more than twice as much in order to convince the BSA to grant their variances. The only place there was any “creativity” was in their financial analysis.

    8. Ground Control says:

      The changes proposed for the landmarked church are in the extreme. The stained glass windows are to be removed and their religious iconography just, cut away. The front stained glass window, one of great historic significance thought to be done at least by the Landmarks Commission by John LaFarge, is to be removed permanently. The roof is to be raised 4 feet for the addition of a penthouse. Four-story glass windows are to be added to the north side breaking through the granite in huge blocks. There will be bulkhead buildings on the roof-all visible from the park and the streets. The interior which was staggering in terms of historic significance and value, was thoughtlessly gutted. I guess the owner assumed that people who wish to live in a landmarked building don’t care about its landmarked and irreplaceable qualities. All this, including the application for zoning variances based on hardship when the owner projects profits somewhere over &100 mil!

      Very sad when one considers this is a Carrere & Hastings designed building as is the NY Public Library. Museums have had serious interest and would have kept the landmark in tact.

      Maybe one day, at the rate the Landmarks Commission and private development are going, the Statue of Liberty will be turned into private condos with apartments and boats docked at the edge.

      • All good points, but what would a different project have done to the site? The interior might have been gutted to accommodate the new functions. The stained glass windows could have been moved to another site. Air conditioning would have had to be installed as well as other unknown functions which might be visible from the outside. A public use facility would bring in more visitors to the community which seems to be a big problem for many locals. A children’s museum would have brought more school buses. There is no best solution that will make everybody happy.

        • Ground Control says:

          Um….. The First Church was a public use facility for over 100 years, and the Community benefited by it. It was the Crenshaw megachurch until it was sold somewhere in 2014. They had a very large and active congregation which packed the space on Sundays and holidays. The church was also used as a rental space. Graduations were held there from local schools. There were concerts often. A local synagogue held High Holiday Services there for years. Limousines pulled up in front routinely on dropping off church members. There were few if any problems with the community.

          But what a developer will have the community believe if they are uninformed enough, is that the church has become obsolete!! Obsolete for their purposes only! To try to make a “hardship” claim before the city, in order to get variances to which they are not entitled to pack it full of apartments for windfall profit. It is a manipulation of the laws of this city just as when developers like Extell are given $65 million dollars worth of tax abatements to build a private condominium project like One 57 in exchange for $14 million dollars of low income housing in the Bronx. Do the math. In any equation the City and the communities are the losers! And this just happens to be a landmark of great distinction which has already been gutted on the inside, waiting for the same fate on the exterior.

          • You put all the blame on the current owner and developer for all the problems and profit they are making. What about Crenshaw Christian Center who sold the property? They are walking away with a huge profit of around $26 million from the sale. They got an equity extraction mortgage of around $10 million from previous years of which the remainder will have to be paid back from the proceeds of the sale.

            Developers are getting tax abatements through legislation that has been enacted by our elected officials. The numbers may seem high but the costs of developing are even higher. One Fifty Seven was estimated to cost $750 million dollars to build. There is a construction loan that will have to be paid back with interest. The costs of property purchase and air rights for arguments sake are another $250 million dollars. The amount of abatement is about 7% of the amount of money spent so far. I agree, the low income housing is a very small amount of the total cost. What we are not seeing is how much money the city will make on this deal. There will be taxes collected on every sale transaction in that building. Someone will have to pay income tax on the broker fees collected. The sales taxes collected for buying furnishings and services. The jobs created for building and maintaining this building are also beneficial. The hotel will also generate taxes. In reality we may not be losing as much as you say.

            • Ground Control says:

              Now you’ve have lost me. The Crenshaw group bought the church for $14 million and sold it for $26 million-they did not make a profit off the entire selling price, considering there were years of upkeep and it cost them something to buy it!!- One 57 is to be filled with many LLC’s, most of whom don’t live in this Country and are not even identified, let alone paying taxes to this City-Hey, if overbuilding to only one class of people, is the only incentive for making money and creating jobs in this City, why not fill in some lesser used part of Central Park and build there? Why not make condos in the NY Public Library or at the Metropolitan Museum? Because they’re landmarked?? And what does that mean these days?? I’m no longer sure.

              I happen to still naively believe that in a democracy you are governed by law. Laws which are routinely forgiven and forgotten for people like developers who come in with buckets of borrowed money. Were I to ask for forgiveness because I bought a property which I now found to be not as good a financial investment as I had hoped and called my plight “hardship”-I assure you I would not be getting gifts from the government. Try fighting a parking ticket in this City and tell me how easy that is! ….

              I don’t happen to think it’s a good thing when a developer-any developer comes into a community and decides that little things like your property rights and respecting the integrity of a magnificent landmark are somehow less important because you’re speculating on a big pay out. And that’s why there’s a zoning board, with Commissioners on it and regulations to protect ordinary citizens.

            • Pedestrian says:

              With all due respect, give me a break. Praising On 57 blows your cover!

              It’s an ugly building build for billionaires with tons of taxpayer money and then tax exemptions to boot.

    9. susan gair says:

      Could we have less greed on the part of developers and more maintaing of what helps make Manhattan wonderful!?

    10. Judy Kass says:

      It could be a school, a recreation center, homeless housing, soup kitchen — anything but another danged rich folks’ high rise marring the skyline of the UWS.