By Carol Tannenhauser
The future of West Park Presbyterian Church at West 86th Street and Amsterdam Avenue goes on trial Thursday, when Community Board 7’s Preservation Committee hears arguments for and against tearing down the landmarked 19th-century structure.
The congregation of the church, which owns the building and has dwindled to 12 members, contends that, because the building is in need of millions of dollars of repairs, demolishing it is the only way to save them from financial ruin and complete extinction.
“We have a church where the cost of repairs exceeds what the fair-market value of the building would be after repairs,” Roger Leaf, a representative of the congregation, told the Rag. “A hardship exemption [from city landmarks officials] offers us a way forward that can allow the congregation to turn itself around and become an important institution on the Upper West Side, as it was in the past.”
If city officials allow the church to be razed, a developer waits in the wings, ready to use the land for a 19-story residential condominium that would also reserve worship space for the parishioners.
But there are forces strongly opposed to turning the church into a pile of red sandstone bricks, and they will argue that the city must honor the building’s status as an architectural landmark worth preserving.
“This is a perilous time for NYC landmarks,” says Susan Sullivan, a board member of The Center at Park West, a tenant in the church building. “The trend toward scrapping historic buildings in favor of high-rises and supertalls marks a great loss to the culture and fabric of our city neighborhoods.”
West Park, completed in 1890, was designated an architectural landmark in 2010, meaning that proposed changes to the building must be approved by the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission. Prior to the commission’s consideration, such changes are subject to review by local community boards, according to the City Charter — in this case, CB7, whose preservation committee will hold Thursday night’s hearing on Zoom at 6:30 pm. It is open to the public. Here is the link to register.
A Landmarks Preservation Commission report on the hearing that led to West Park’s 2010 designation says that 13 witnesses opposed it, including the congregation’s pastor and several members, while 56 spoke in favor. The landmark supporters included Gale Brewer, then (and now) City Council member from the Upper West Side; Bill de Blasio, also a City Council member at the time; and State Assembly member Linda Rosenthal. “The commission also received numerous letters and emails, in support of the designation,” the report said, but made no mention of opposition messages.
The commission voted in favor of landmark status despite the church’s opposition – and in spite of the fact that, eight years earlier, the building had been deemed unsafe by the city’s Department of Buildings. The safety hazard meant the church had to install a sidewalk shed around the building, protecting pedestrians from injury if pieces of the façade fell. Twenty-one years later, the shed still surrounds the building’s façade; the church has been unable to afford substantial remediations, other than emergency repairs.
The strong political support for landmarking West Park Presbyterian may have been based as much on the congregation’s social history as on the building’s architectural significance. The church has been a center of activism since the 1980s, when it supported the gay rights movement and provided social services to people with HIV and AIDS. God’s Love We Deliver, a nonprofit organization that delivers meals to the sick, had its first commercial kitchen there.
Until recently, It seemed like the protective sidewalk shed would stand forever and the building would be allowed to fall further and further into disrepair. Then, in March, Alchemy Properties, a New York City-based developer, made the congregation an offer: Alchemy would buy the property and turn it into a residential condominium, with space reserved for the church – on the condition that it could be demolished.
Demolition would require the church building to be freed from its landmark designation. And so, the congregation has applied to the landmarks commission for a “hardship” exemption, which would remove its obligation to preserve the building; preservation costs would run as high as $50 million, the church estimates, with $17 million of that needed just to repair the facade.
A decision in favor of the church’s request “would mark a rare reversal for the city-run panel,” Gothamist reported, noting that the commission had received just 19 hardship exemption requests in the last 57 years. Of those, 13 were approved, four rejected and two remain pending, according to Gothamist. K Karpen, co-chair of the Preservation Committee, told the Rag, “This is completely different than what we normally do.”
The Center at Park West
Alchemy’s offer is not the only rescue plan for the church, though. The congregation has had another offer from The Center at West Park, a nonprofit organization that has rented space in the church since 2017. The center has created a community performing arts center in 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 stewarding “the restoration of our historic home’s landmark exterior.”
To promote its offer, The Center has run a media campaign to raise funds for repairs and rally support for maintaining the building’s landmark status. But The Center’s approximately $2-million offer, cited by a staff member, pales beside that of developer Alchemy, which is offering $33 million, plus another $8.8 million to finish and furnish a new 10,000-square-foot worship space for the congregation, according to Roger Leaf.
Based strictly on finances – and on the fact that in the 13 years since the landmark designation, the church has not managed to raise funds to save the building – the hardship designation request might appear reasonable.
But how do you measure the value of a 132-year-old church, which has been called “one of the best examples of a Romanesque Revival style religious structure in New York City”?
When it gave the building landmark designation, the commission said: “The extraordinarily deep color of its red sandstone cladding and the church’s bold forms with broad, round-arched openings and a soaring tower at the corner of West 86th Street and Amsterdam Avenue produce a monumental and distinguished presence along those streets.” That is what would be removed, if the city allows the hardship exemption, paving the way for a high-rise condominium at one of the major crossroads of the Upper West Side.
But if the exemption isn’t approved, “it would almost certainly lead to the demise of the congregation,” says West Park member Roger Leaf. “It would be left having to sell the building, likely without realizing any funds or revenue from it, with no place to worship and no funds to ressurect itself.”
Thursday’s CB7 committee meeting is open to the public. Members of the committee will vote on whether to support the hardship exemption request, and its decision will be presented to the next full Community Board meeting on June 7. Whatever the board decides then will be forwarded to the landmarks commission, for consideration at a future meeting.
Again, the Preservation Committee meeting will take place this Thursday, May 5, at 6:30 pm on Zoom. Here is the link to join.
Watch for West Side Rag’s coverage on Friday.