By Carol Tannenhauser
Community Board 7’s Preservation Committee voted Thursday night to deny West Park Presbyterian Church’s application to remove the church’s 12-year-old landmark designation: eight members voted to deny the application; only one member supported it, while one other abstained.
The committee’s recommendation goes next to the full Community Board on June 7, and later to the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission, which is expected to decide the church’s fate this summer.
The church has sought removal of the landmark designation, which would free it to sell the property to a developer who plans to demolish the building and replace it with a 19-story condominium.
Around 200 people joined the Zoom meeting at 6:30 p.m. Thursday evening, which lasted more than four hour. They heard, first, the presentation of the church and its team of experts, detailing the dire condition of the building and the projected costs to restore it, followed by comments and questions from the committee and the community.
The church’s presentation is here.
During the hours of discussion, with comments from more than 40 participants, only a few spoke in support of the church’s request. Many who spoke portrayed the church as irresponsible or careless in managing the building.
“It has not been a historic landmark for very long and I’m really struggling with how it could have been so mismanaged in such a short time,” said Avery Ryan, who lives next door to the church, calling the hardship it was claiming “self-inflicted.”
Ryan was one of many speakers to castigate the local Presbytery — the governing body of the church — and the Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) itself, “for allowing an owner to mismanage [the church] out of its landmark status.” It couldn’t have happened, she said, “without complete abdication and complacency.”
Several speakers suggested that, if the building were ultimately demolished and replaced by a condominium, none of the profits should go to the Presbytery. “I really hate that there will be some financial gain and the historic status thrown away so quickly,” Ryan concluded.
“Rewarding an owner who participates in demolition by neglect will set a precedent,” said Sean Khorsandi, executive director of the preservationist nonprofit group, Landmark West.
“I’m just feeling extremely sad and disheartened about the current situation,” said Melissa Elstein, of the West 80s Neighborhood Association, capturing the feelings of many who testified. “It’s such a tragedy. I just hope we can preserve it.”
City Council Member Gale Brewer, who attended, insisted that preservation is possible, contending that one of the roadblocks to raising the millions of dollars needed to restore the building is that people don’t want to give to a church. “This should be owned by a nonprofit,” she said. “That’s what the Presbytery should do, because once a nonprofit owns it, I can allocate city money. I cannot allocate money to a church.”
Brewer said she believes that Upper West Side foundations and residents would “easily allocate money for a nonprofit with a cultural bent. If the Presbytery would sell it to a nonprofit, we would end up with millions of dollars for it to be renovated,” she insisted. “The idea that somebody will tear this down and replace it with condos is beyond reprehensible, and I will do everything I can to preserve this building.”
Thursday’s vote and resolution were the first step in a process of deciding the building’s fate.
After hearing the church’s presentation and audience comments, CB7 Preservation Co-Chair Michelle Parker said, “The applicant did not meet the extremely heavy burden of proof required.”
“The discussion tonight has revealed options and opportunities that have not been explored that would be foreclosed forever if the demolition were permitted,” added Mark Diller, a CB7 member.
Several committee members called it the most difficult decision of their careers, but in the end, the members of the CB7 Preservation Committee voted overwhelmingly to deny West Park Presbyterian Church the “hardship exemption” they were seeking. The committe’s resolution, to be crafted after the meeting, will include the words, “CB7 calls on the Landmarks Preservation Commission to disapprove the application, as presented.”
The full board will consider the resolution at its next meeting on June 7. Its recommendation will then go to the Landmarks Commission, which will hear more public comments before taking a final vote.