The Fate of a Landmark Church is Uncertain as Hearings Begin Thursday

West Park Presbyterian Church. Photographs by Carol Tannenhauser.

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.”

Photograph via West Park Presbyterian Church.

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.

ART, HISTORY, NEWS | 42 comments | permalink
    1. Jay says:

      But does CB7 ultimately approve “hardship” exemptions?

      Wouldn’t that be the Landmarks Preservation Commission?

      “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.”

      And if that excuse flies with LPC, watch all sorts of developers make the same excuse so as to demolish landmarked buildings. Also watch all sorts of landlords increase financial hardships (ostensibly), so as to be able to tear down or significantly alter landmarked buildings.

      • Paul says:

        Is the congregation of 12 – a voluntary association and a not for profit – in a dilapidated church the same as a “landlord” or “developer?”

        Seriously?

        Are you going to get their names and lien their properties?

        Let the people who want to maintain this building as is take title and do so.

        • Jay says:

          No.

          And you missed my point entirely:

          If this excuse it legitimized, then the church will be torn down, not redeveloped for other uses.

          And this will lead to the tearing down of other landmarked buildings in NYC.

          • Paul says:

            There’s a simple answer.
            Buildings that are economically unsustainable should not be landmarked unless government is willing to pay the cost of sustaining them.

            • Jay says:

              Paul,

              Then every developer or landlord wanting to change or tear down a building would use “economically unsustainable” as an excuse.

              Profit isn’t everything.

      • B.B. says:

        As with many other things in NYC community board input is purely advisory. Yes, it can carry weight, but whatever city decides to do (via its various agencies or city hall), it will do.

        Local community board voted against St. Vincent’s being given green light to demolish O’Toole building to put up a new hospital. LPC approved plans anyway.

        https://gothamist.com/news/st-vincents-plan-will-likely-get-final-approval-from-lpc

        https://www.thecityreview.com/stvin2.html

        St. Vincent’s applied for and received one of those coveted “hardship” declarations. LPC likely feared if denied St. Vincent’s (who truly were hard up), would bring legal action that could threaten all or part of city’s landmark preservation laws.

        • Jay says:

          You seem to have “forgotten” that the landmarked part of St. Vincent’s hospital remains, while ironically, St. Vincent’s doesn’t.

          • B.B. says:

            Have “forgotten” nothing. You seem ignorant of facts regarding St. Vincent’s.

            Plans originally called for demolishing O’Toole building, student nurse’s residence and other buildings part of that campus.

            “The project, planned in partnership with the Rudin Organization, a local developer, would be built in two phases. In the first the five-story O’Toole Building would be demolished to make room for a 21-story tower that would house the entire hospital. (Because of the floors’ unusual height, this is roughly equivalent to a 30-story building.) A 21-story residential tower, flanked by rows of town houses, would replace the hospital’s seven other buildings between 11th and 12th Streets.”

            https://www.nytimes.com/2008/04/01/arts/design/01pres.html

            • Jay says:

              B.B:

              And still you “forget” that the landmarked part of St. Vincent’s remains.

              Also the excuse the archdiocese of NYC was so as to do a real estate deal. They’re hardly hurting, BUT wanted to sell all of St Vincent’s on 11th and 12th streets to the east of 7th Ave. and make as much as possible.

              They could have sold some of those buildings and constructed a smaller hospital. But no.

    2. Leon says:

      Can’t there be a plan C? The city or someone else offers less than the private developer, tears down the church and builds something of a more modest scope in the space, including room for existing groups.

      Could you perhaps clarify who is on the receiving end of the proposed payments? Because if it is the church, this should not be an exercise in maximizing profits but rather covering costs and continuing its mission to the community.

      • B.B. says:

        But then you are getting into takings clause of USC. This and possibly also violation of separation of church and state.

        Regardless of how distasteful it may be to some, a religious congregation has same rights as anyone else regarding property they own. In recent history a dozen or more churches and synagogues were closed, and property redeveloped.

    3. Glen says:

      This is a classic catch 22. Because of the landmark status, the building is prohibitively expensive to repair as every repair must be made in kind, but it is a religious organization and the city cannot assist it in paying for the repair the city itself requires (on landmarked buildings repairs generally have to be made in kind…even cost effective modern techniques such as fibreglass cannot be utilized). While the Center’s goals of acquiring the building and restoring it are laudable there does not appear to be enough community support to make that a realistic let alone enough to pay for the daily operations (gas, electric, insurance) maintenance and future repairs). Thus if the church sells to the Center for $2m and the Center cannot make a go of it, what happens? Are we back to square one with the only difference being the Center gets to sell the building for $40m rather than the church? Or will LPC allow the building to continue to fall in on itself until it’s just a pile of red sandstone.

      • Bill S. says:

        Excellent point. No assurance of any improvement. Personally, tired of scaffolding up for years and years.

    4. LL says:

      On the one hand, the building is exquisite. On the other, o be cannot see its exquitness due to scaffolding. And on the OTHER hand, a building’s beauty does not override the beds of the congregation. I think reversing it is vest for the church members, plus more housing is good. Perhaps other churches can house the organizations currently residing in the church

    5. Ulrile Klopfer says:

      How about a go fund me page? If there are enough donor-supporters, it might be possible to save the building and the congregation.

    6. Elisabeth Jakab says:

      Well, here is a splendid opportunity for billionaires with philanthropic zeal to come to aid of the church. What’s $50 million to Bloomberg, Soros, Scott Mackenzie, Bill Gates, Warren Buffet, and other fat cats? C’mon guys (and gals), pony up!
      I am sick and tired of the development of high-rise high- priced luxury apartments for whom? Poobah’s from overseas who sink their $$ here for safekeeping. Wall St fat cats? What developer proposes is certainly not “affordable” housing! How is this going to benefit NYC? It isn’t, will only line the pockets of rapacious developers.

    7. Sonia Vicinanza says:

      The protective scaffolding has been an eyesore for years and attracts homeless. Please allow the congregation to determine its future! Shame on you Gail Brewer for your misdirected manipulation and involvement. This is not your decision. It is the church’s remaining congregation to decide. Just look to St. Peter’s church and how it has prospered after deciding it’s future.

      • Mutual Interest says:

        Just to be clear it seems to be anyone who is in a status/lifestyle of homeless is human and therefore just maybe in search of a church for safety just like any other human being in other status/lifestyle meeting their respective needs.

        This beautiful church steeped in meaning is not Gale’s problem it is OUR UWS/NYC problem and more importantly a symbol of our collaboration to forget faith and preserve what in its place, condos. An intellectual, sacred and moral lighthouse to many over decades to be demolished by our own inactions and replaced by private alchemical containers of a different name known as 19 stories of condos. It’s our UWS and World. We the people decide…

        Join the discussion or tell an architect, urban planner, designer to show up Thursday night!

    8. UWSdad says:

      Of course we all want to keep a piece of history when we can and the church is beautiful. But if nothing is done and the church just remains as is, vacant and unsafe, we can all pick up tiny pieces of history as the building crumbles to the ground. A landmark is only good if it is standing and this one is barely. Let’s get real — no one is coming up with $50 million but maybe we can get the developer to build something appropriate to the space.

    9. B.B. says:

      Another fine mess started by Gail Brewer who was very active in getting West Park Presbyterian Church landmarked.

      At time she went on about how there would be funding from city and other sources for required maintenance and preservation. This she knew as not going to happen at least from federal, state or city money due to laws prohibiting direct funding to houses of worship (separation of church and state).

      Now Ms. Brewer is supporting WP being “sold” (at a very steep discount) to that nearly penniless nonprofit, then she will “work” to obtain funding from city and other sources.

    10. Newcavendish says:

      What a tragedy it will be to lose this wonderful building. Surely there’s a billionaire around someplace who needs to do a good deed who could step in?

      • B.B. says:

        Let me see if have this straight.

        Other times majority sentiment on WSR is bring out the trumbull carts, load them up with mega rich and off to the guillotine.

        But now when people want something from them, it’s “where are those billionaires, surely they can help…”

        • GGII says:

          I don’t see the contradiction here.

          Many of us are disgusted by the vulgar opulence and greed of this new generation of the ultra-wealthy.

          But they aren’t going anywhere so how about they do their part and contribute a tiny percentage of that vast wealth to help the communities they live in and the people they exploit?

          We know many of them don’t pay their fair share of taxes or their employees a living wage.

    11. FLWright says:

      Tear it down. That scaffolding won’t protect anybody if one of those leaning walls decides to collapse.
      Build new housing and make that corner safe for the first time in over a generation.

    12. Jean says:

      How about repurposing it into a “Museum of the UWS?

    13. Rwc says:

      Tear it down or invest the millions needed.
      I’ve been a volunteer in groups at this church it’s unsustainable to keep it standing. it needs to be completely fixed or torn down and a guaranteed the replacement building would include an handicapped accessible church and spaces and space for the various community groups to have meeting.

      • Agree with you. I attended an event at that church more than 10 years ago. The inside areas were not in good shape, stairways seemed unsafe and condition as a whole appeared in great need of renovation and repair. Can’t imagine what ten+ more years have done to the interior and exterior. The congregation should be allowed to determine the fate of the building.

    14. 72RSD says:

      It should be more widely acknowledged that — as reported by a columnist in the Post — Susan Sullivan quoted in this article has a west-facing view that would be blocked by building over the church.

      Perhaps the church should be demolished if there is no one able to pay the $20-50 million to repair it. Certainly not a good use of tax dollars! I dare Brewer to try to get so much money carved out of the budget.

      Maybe then we can have a realistic conversation about how landmarking the entire neighborhood has made it too expensive to actually pay to maintain and preserve so many buildings.

      The balance is way off when just replacing your windows requires groveling before the government bureaucracy and a community board meeting. Or spending millions on new windowsills that are perfectly matching a 1920s windowsill.

      • AR says:

        Agree. Context is important. It was the residents of the neighboring buildings that fought for the landmark designation because they didn’t want their views ruined, sticking the congregation with the repair bill. And I too have gone through the window replacement insanity. It cost us thousands of dollars extra and took many months of red tape to comply with minor cosmetic details, such as mullions, that aren’t even visible from the street.

    15. SM says:

      I’m sure there are some innovative architects who can figure out how to keep the facade and build housing around it?
      I think they did that with a Church on the East side where the outside/entrance was maintained but modern housing was built around it?
      Not the perfect solution, but perhaps can keep the red sandstone details preserved?

    16. Joe says:

      It is falling down. Build something else there.

    17. Pedestrian says:

      Alchemy’s plan is NOT a rescue plan for the church. It’s a DEMOLITION plan. Money is the impetuous and the goal.

    18. Amy says:

      For those in favor of preserving this historic building, please sign the petition launched by the Center at West Park, a non-profit community performing arts center based in the landmark church space:
      https://chng.it/2VYLjyjsbd

      • Glen says:

        People can sign petitions until the cows come home but until someone is able to come with a mid eight figure donation it won’t solve the problem at hand. Further a consistent source of revenue must also be identified to cover the expenses of the building moving ahead.

    19. Barbara Jolson says:

      Shame that we are even considering the possibility of this architectural specimen! Let a developer build around it! It has been done before! Use it as part of a new structure! Make it interesting!! Not just another condo!

    20. John Gingrich says:

      As one of the 13 who spoke to City Council against landmarking back in 2010, I sadly remember that the plan then was to build affordable apartments and using proceeds to maintain the original facade on Amsterdam Avenue. Scaffolding has remained and the new proposal now incorporates market rate apartments and good-bye building. There appears to be no “win” here.

    21. B.B. says:

      Bottom line everyone including Brewer, city council, LPC and others who supported landmarking WP knew, or should have known the place was a wreck. It never should have been landmarked absent firm clear finances to restore and maintain that old pile of bricks.

    22. Judith M Kass says:

      Is there any foreseeable way to tear down (sigh!) the church without allowing any corporate entity to build a structure out of keeping with the UWS as it is now? The neighborhood already has the uncompleted apartment at the southeast corner of Broadway and W 85 St. Farther downtown 50 W 66th St. looms.

    23. Judy Kass says:

      If the church collapses a large part will land on top of Barney Greengrass — another west side institution we don’t want to lose. The apartment at the SE corner of 87 St. and Amsterdam will be affected, as will buildings to the east on 86th.

    24. james says:

      the measure of a strong society is its ability to keep its history and past vibrant. it is a disgrace to demolish this building