By Alex Israel
After hours of back and forth on procedure and proposed construction, Community Board 7 (CB7) ultimately voted to disapprove new plans for the former First Church of Christ, Scientist, at 361 Central Park West (96th Street), which was purchased by the Children’s Museum of Manhattan (CMOM) in 2017.
The museum is looking to move into the former church and fully rebuild its interior. A developer had previously tried and failed to turn the church into condos.
Completed in 1903, the church is a New York City landmark, located within the federally designated Central Park West Historic District. CMOM currently operates at 212 West 83rd Street between Broadway and Amsterdam Avenue.
CB7’s first agenda item of the new decade was listed as a full board vote on a December resolution from the Preservation Committee to disapprove of CMOM’s initial architectural plans for the landmark building. The 78-page proposal incorporates seven floors worth of additions to fill the currently gutted building, including a workshop and performance space and rooftop terrace.
The committee took issue with two primary recommendations: the windows and the roof. The proposed removal of the existing stained-glass windows and replacement with clear glass, plus the significant structural changes to the bulkhead of the roof were considered “not appropriate to the character of this individual landmark,” according to their resolution.
When something is disapproved in committee, typically the full board follows suit at its next full board meeting, and the presenting organization is given the opportunity to provide a new plan at a later committee meeting. Preservation Committee co-chair Michele Parker said this process was suggested to CMOM.
But rather than waiting to return to the next committee meeting with updates, CMOM and its architectural firm FXCollaborative appeared at January’s full board meeting—less than a month after committee disapproval—with a short presentation that included several modifications to the proposal.
CMOM’s updated proposal maintained the removal of all but one of the building’s stained-glass windows, but incorporated some changes to the plan for the roof that a representative from FXCollaborative described as “more in-line with the existing profile.” Compared to the original plan, the modifications both allow for more sunlight to reach the neighboring building to the north, and for the restoration of more of the original clay-tile roof on the south side, he said.
Following the presentation, Preservation Committee Co-Chair Michele Parker then read a “substitute resolution”—a replacement for the one adopted in December’s committee—ultimately in approval of the plan.
CB7 Chair Mark Diller attributed the board’s urgency in decision-making (and disruption of standard procedure) to an upcoming meeting of the Landmark Preservation Committee (LPC) to discuss the proposal. As an advisory entity, CB7 is responsible to represent the community at these public hearings. “If we don’t act tonight, we could lose the ability to comment on it at all,” Diller said.
A packed room of local residents and representatives from community organizations spoke out against CMOM’s initial and current plans, reiterating outstanding concerns shared during the committee meeting centered around the windows, roof, and overall structure that they felt went largely unaddressed in the revised proposal.
The changes would still “fundamentally alter the architectural characteristics, aesthetic, and historic nature of the building,” argued one speaker, an Upper West Side resident for 38 years, to a round of applause.
Others expressed concern and confusion about the speed of the process. “The museum needs to learn to play nice, and that means that we don’t hasten this process,” said one.
“The museum is steamrolling us,” added another.
Former members of the church also showed up to share their disdain for the turnover of the building to non-religious uses.
“CMOM has programs that help children smile for a day. We change lives for a lifetime,” said a woman who identified herself as the wife of one of the church’s former pastors.
Diller later noted that the question of the church’s ownership and operation was out of CB7’s control once it had been sold in 2014.
When it came time for deliberation on the resolution, CB7 largely echoed the community’s concerns about the designs.
“I don’t think a word of what we said last time was heard,” said one member.
Another felt that it would set a bad precedent to allow CMOM to remove their historic stained-glass windows. Others, including Diller, argued it would be legally irresponsible to require any private institution to maintain relics of religious iconography.
Like the public, board members also questioned the break in typical procedure. Some suggested asking LPC to hold off on discussion of the property for a month or two, while others believed that would be futile.
Four hours after the start of the meeting, the first agenda item was called to question.
The Committee’s substitute resolution to approve the plan failed, with only 13 board members voting in favor, compared to 22 in opposition and three who abstained. From there, the board turned to the committee’s original resolution to disapprove the plan. This vote ultimately passed, with 25 board members in favor, 13 in opposition, and one abstaining.
As of Wednesday, the application for 361 Central Park West remains on LPC’s agenda for Tuesday, January 14, 2019. The hearing will be open to the public at 1 Centre Street, 9th Floor. Timing is currently unlisted.