CB7 Preservation Committee Votes to Deny West Park’s Application to De-Landmark the Church

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.

What the intersection of Amsterdam and 86th Street could look like. Rendering via Alchemy Properties.

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.”

Photograph via West Park Presbyterian Church.

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.

NEWS, REAL ESTATE | 48 comments | permalink
    1. Otis says:

      Will CB7 and Gale Brewer now provide the millions of dollars (by all accounts) needed to renovate the church and keep it safe?

      It seems to me most of the people living nearby don’t care about this church at all. They simply are opposed to its demolition because they don’t want any construction in their neighborhood.

      We will now continue to indefinitely have a decrepit and unsafe building surrounded by scaffolding that is hardly used by anyone instead of a modern building that would allocate space for the church and community groups.

      This is another example Brewer and her fellow progressives ruining the UWS.

      • Carlos says:

        I agree – this is just delaying the inevitable. It is really sad.

        I do like the idea of not letting the church profit from this, though I think that is hard to implement. As I noted in an earlier thread, the win-win would be to re-zone the lot, sell the church for a smaller amount and build a smaller building on the lot, with part of it for the church/other groups.

        I think many of those who want to keep the church are only doing so because selfishly they don’t want a big building replacing it. Cut the size of the building in half and some of them might change their minds.

        But I know I am living in fantasy land and this will never happen…

      • Janet Hutter says:

        It’s an historic structure and has cultural value to the entire city as such. That’s the reason to keep it from becoming just another high-rise, not the desires of the surrounding apartment owners.

      • Paul says:

        I spoke with Brewer yesterday. I pointed out to her that she’s been in office every day since this building was landmarked, and her reply was to interrupt me to tell me that “I landmarked it” then I asked why she hasn’t come up with a plan in the 12 years since?

        She admitted she dropped the ball but insisted that now she’ll get it done.

        Who is going to hold her feet to the fire?
        Who will ask her for a timeline on this?

        Will the Rag follow through?

      • Michael G says:

        In case others forgot to read the article, like Otis: “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.”

    2. Jas says:

      The arguments against the church sound like the same kind that the Supreme Ct. is using to overturn Roe: because we say so. Try financing a century old single purpose building with a shrinking audience. It can’t be done. If it could, some would buy it. As for the city stepping in to provide funds for restoration and maintenance? Do you mean like it has done for the Soldiers and Sailors Monument or Riverside Park?

      • Bill S. says:

        A great point. Gee Ms Brewer can we have status of the funds to restore the Soldiers and Sailors monument? I’l wait.

      • Boris says:

        Shoehorning in a comment about the Supreme Court is lame. But if you really have to vent using that theme, you should recognize that both entities issue their opinions based on their interpretations of guiding principles. Supreme Court decisions aren’t final because they’re right. They’re right because they’re final. To elevate this small-minded CB7 Preservation Committee to the level of the Supreme Court is silly as this is not the final step in the process.

        • West Side Rag says:

          Were you at the meeting, Boris? Because I was. The level of the Supreme Court? They should aspire to the intelligence and ethics of those “small-minded” people you refer to on the Preservation Committee. Professional, experienced, serious about the job, collegial, they did a great job — you are way off base. Perhaps you should try reading the articles as well as the comments.

          • Paul says:

            One of the co-chairs of this committee is the reverend of the church on West End at 86th. Also a landmark, also, presumably, in the running for any possible funding sources to preserve such a landmark.

            Did he participate and vote?

      • Pedestrian says:

        How offensive and wrong! The Church Building has been ignored by the Presbytery and it’s “owners” for many years. The Presbytery looks to make a cool 30 million on the sale and the Congregation of 12 $10 million and that’s likely to be all tax free. The Landmark will be destroyed. The LPC looked the other way while the building deteriorated…like Nero while Rome burned. This is nothing less that demolition by neglect.

    3. Joe says:

      Awful. Now we are going to have a vacant broken down rat infested, drug den there for decades.

    4. Bill says:

      Now the church does not have money and no access to any income. Churches need to sell property to survive. Now it will just sit there and continue to deteriorate as bad ruin the neighborhood.

    5. Paul says:

      So 10 years in, more time to ‘study’ and ‘propose’ and ‘look into’ while the building continues to deteriorate and, as a result, costs of rehab continue to rise?

      And who will cover the building’s costs in the interim?

    6. SM says:

      Obviously an emotional vs. practical decision.
      Now, as stated, what are the next steps?
      More importantly, what about the timing? If this decision was taken, it should have been time bound (e.g., a viable plan has to be approved in the next 6 months).
      As it stands now (my understanding) is that there is no timeline and hence we have many more years of deterioration to look forward to.

      I also agree about Sailors monument … it is an eyesore on Riverside drive with no plan to fix it.
      And BTW, requires a lot less $$ than the church.

      • B.B. says:

        Committee will draw up a final resolution that will be voted upon by entire CB. That in turn is sent onto LPC who will take it under consideration as they debate West Park’s hardship application.

        As said before, these CB resolutions are only advisory, not binding upon city or its various agencies including LPC.

        Community board actions do carry weight, but they don’t always get their way.

        Finally if LPC turns down WP’s hardship request latter could bring legal action against City of New York, it’s officers and agency in question.

        • SM says:

          Sounds like a process without an end in sight.
          A bad outcome for all concerned.
          The main issue is financial – who is going to come up with the $$? Brewer says it is “easy” to assign “millions” – but is it enough?
          Too many vague statements to solve a real problem.

    7. Dominic Frigosi says:

      Great. Now get it fixed in phases. Unless the city takes it over, the only choices are a dilapidated building for squatting homeless, or condos. Both bad choices. As for public comments, committees rarely care what the public thinks.

    8. UWSerrr says:

      So it will be just like the Soldiers and Sailors monument. Not enough money to fix it and not enough stuff upper lip to tear it down. So they both will just be dangerous eyesore’s for a few more decades until they collapse under their own weight.

    9. Mark says:

      Looks like Avery Ryan mentioned in the article lives right next door to the church with her windows facing west into the church. So she does not want a building put up next to her. I understand.

    10. UWSWasp says:

      Its a Beautiful building. Im glad it will be preserved and renovated. Sell it to the nonprofit, then money can be raised to preserve it.

    11. Spence Halperin says:

      Gale Brewer offers a reasonable solution. Make it into a non-profit organization serving the community in some way. Raise money from govt, foundations, and individuals to restore the building. To lose this stunning structure to a high rise would be tragic.

      • Janet Hutter says:

        I am in favor of Gale Brewer’s proposal. Hopefully, the vote at this special meeting will be a hint to the church that they should explore a move in this direction as a solution to their financial problem.

      • B.B. says:

        In other words WP congregation should be muscled out of their property, and turn it over to a not for profit.

        Where is all this supposed “donated” money going to come from anyway? Gale Brewer and others have had ten years to raise funds to *save* WP. Best they have done is barely two million dollars.

        Don’t give me “oh it’s a church so people won’t donate” rubbish.

    12. Ellen Jacob says:

      I listened to the entire four hour meeting and I would hope that people writing here would as well. It is a landmark building for a reason, and the Presbytery has opted to get the most money it can after doing very little maintenance–demolition by neglect– over the past 12 years. (there are only 12 parishioners of the West Park church) Why should the neighborhood lose it’s beautiful architecture to benefit the church? The building can be preserved. It is a multi-use building with a rich history of social justice and arts organizations. The Center at West Park (a thriving arts organization)has offered to buy the building and with it the burden to fix it. That offer will not make the Presbytery as rich, but will preserve the neighborhood’s integrity and provide a beautifully useful communal space. The last thing the UWS needs is another high-priced, high-rise condo.

      • Isaac says:

        The way rents have gone through the roof should tell you that the UWS (and NYC generally) could use HUNDREDS more new condo buildings

        • Bruce E. Bernstein says:

          Sorry, more so called luxury condos functioning as pied a terres do nothing to bring housing costs down. We need affordable housing.

          Don’t fall for these developer myths,

    13. J Johnson says:

      Well done, Preservative Committee! Let’s not replace remarkable, historical and arguably beautiful buildings with the bland, yet cost effective. NYC can do better. I hope LPC agrees.

    14. VERONICA says:

      I have zero confidence in Gale Brewer. All she is good for is a constant stream of vague pronouncements. I recall her standing outside of what is now the tower at 200 Amsterdam Avenue proclaiming that she would not allow this to be built.

    15. Maria says:

      It would seem important to know how the building might be used by a nonprofit to make a decision Would it still be a church or something else? The buildings next door, based on the rendering, also will seem to lose light and views from the sides facing the new construction. Maybe elements of the church could be preserved and used in the lobby of the new building decoratively with historical pictures. Difficult decision.

      • B.B. says:

        NYC real estate rule #1; no one has any right to lot line views.

        People have lost and still are losing lot line views all the time. Some co-ops or condos outright purchase adjacent property to prevent this from happening. Other than that there are few remaining remedies.

    16. Peter Brandt says:

      Thank you a big bunch ! This church deserves to be preserved ! I’m with Gale Brewer, sell it to a non-profit, then fix it !

    17. Jerelle says:

      Thank you for voting against yet another ugly high-rise and
      thousands more souls on our crowded streets.

    18. Churchmouse says:

      It’s interesting that the neighbors don’t put the funds up to keep their neighborhood “as is”.

      The place was in disrepair before it was landmarks (it was landmarked because they proposed to raise the building then), how come there was no sustainable plan in place by the city, and Gale, at that time?

      Let it come down, and limit the new structure to meet the needs of the community, amd must remain in the same footprint (height and size), keeping same zone – non residential.

    19. Walter Williamson says:

      Gale Brewer’s idea is spot on. The building of course should be preserved. A non-profit would very likely be able to raise the funds, probably from Upper West Siders alone, to buy and renovate it for a museum or other cultural use. Walter (W. 84th St. apartment owner)

    20. SM says:

      I’m all for preserving the structure, but for all those who want a “non-profit” to take over and expect, miraculously, that it will be able to raise 30,40+ Million … where is the money going to come from? Very few non-profits have the ability to raise that level of funding.

      We need a practical solution to this – and it starts with figuring out where the money is and then planning around that.

      Just by saying “sell to a non-profit” is not a solution.

    21. Eckersley says:

      Under the current rules, owners of landmarks are forced to provide a public good without any recognition of that service. This is unworkable as exemplified by the case of West Park.

      The rules need to be urgently reformed so that public funds or tax breaks or zoning incentives go hand in hand with landmark designation. Private funds, such as from the Landmarks Conservancy, should also be expanded.

      The committee last night stuck their heads firmly in the ground, in refusing to acknowledge that this building has sadly deteriorated beyond feasible repair. I fear it will now fester for a long time and continue to hinder the congregation in their efforts for renewal.

      PS thanks to the WSR for excellent reporting on this.

    22. tnic says:

      Those two photos — before and after — say it all…there’s such a thing as the public interest.

      Brewer should be applauded for trying to find a creative way to keep the building a part of the community. The city would be a lesser place without it.

      • Phoebe says:

        The character of the UWS depends on our older and landmark buildings. No question. The alternative is repulsive. It seems like the work of a slumlord, to allow this deterioration. I have no sympathy for them. Too bad, so sad…

    23. Gretchen says:

      This process is simply kicking the can down the road. It remains unresolved and time is not on its side with its compromised infrastructure and deferred maintenance. Maybe the Presbytery can sell the church’s air rights to a developer like so many other buildings have done that were short of cash. Considering the church pays zero taxes, they’ve already got money out of this deal. And yes, someone please fix the historic Soldiers & Sailors Monument!

    24. Jean Luke says:

      I’d tear it down. It’s become an eyesore and it’s not like its a vintage movie palace. It’s an old Church.

      The new buildings being built in the city usually have good design and good lighting outside the bldgs. Its a super competitive market for Condos and Rentals so good design is a major selling point.

    25. Carolyn says:

      I am so happy! Thank you. It gives me faith that there are people who care. Not only is it an historic building, but it offers space….space that is much needed for the arts – performance, rehearsal, exhibit spaces. We need that in the upper west side. Tearing down buildings in the guise of community space and low income housing is a farce! Remember Penn Station? Who profits from tearing them down? Who profits from those high buildings? Can your mother live there? How about your retired uncle? Those pencil buildings are ugly and have changed the skyline of NY. Thank you so much Gale Brewer for your care and concern. New York and the Upper West Side is lucky to have you.

    26. Chris C says:

      Too late to save the Hayden Planetarium but maybe we can save this one.

    27. SayHerName says:

      Laugh out loud at these old white liberals once again ignoring the incontrovertible facts facing them. This building will come down, the CB7 is a waste of resources, the blatantly blind will continue to lead the city down an unlivable path. None of you will be remembered as having any spine or common sense.

    28. UWS Millennial says:

      There’s a severe housing shortage in the city. I do wish West Side Rag would put that context into articles on this topic. This is about neighbors trying to fight new housing in the midst of a housing crisis. It plays out every day in neighborhoods across the country and it is driving a housing affordability crisis that makes homeownership out-of reach for many millennials (even high earning ones, like me, who are renting in the UWS and always on the verge of being pushed out with the next rent increase) and fuels homelessness at the lower end of the income spectrum. It makes older, wealthier, whiter homeowners richer and keeps them politically entrenched while keeping everyone else out. It’s a nativist, conservative mindset that plagues many supposedly liberal neighborhoods like ours. It should be covered as such by responsible local media, not disguised as responsible preservationism.

      NYC has many pieces of architecture (including many churches) worth preserving. This is not one of them. Just because it’s in our lovely neighborhood, does not mean it’s a historical wonder. We tend to have that bias here.

      Build the condos and don’t let this drag on for an embarrassingly long time. It is an unnecessary expense to everyone involved.

    29. Glen says:

      The perpetual paean of “sell it to a non-profit,” glosses over the fact most non-profits are organized to do something other than just maintain the old building in which it is located. Without question tens of millions of dollars must be raised to repair the building and two or three more million must be earmarked annually for its regular maintenance. (As a landmark even modest repairs will cost far more). That is a huge amount for even the most successful non-profits.

      Further, does Gale Brewer really believe representatives of other neighborhoods on the City Council will approve grants of many millions of dollars to restore an old building on the UWS?

      If the building is sold at a knock down price and the non-profit cannot make a go of it, what happens? Does the non-profit reap the windfall?