By WSR Editorial Staff
In the latest twist in the battle over whether to preserve West-Park Presbyterian Church as a historic landmark, the church’s congregation filed a lawsuit on Monday against its tenant, The Center at West Park, asking that the lease they both signed in 2017 be declared “null and void.”
If the church’s suit prevails, it would, in effect, evict the Center, a nonprofit performing arts group that has opposed West-Park’s effort to shed its landmark status so that it can sell the property at West 86th and Amsterdam. The potential buyer is a real estate developer, Alchemy Properties, who wants to replace the church with a 19-story, market-rate apartment building.
The lawsuit is asking the New York State Supreme Court to declare the lease null and void on the grounds that the 2017 agreement was signed without approvals required by the New York State Religious Corporations Law. The suit also alleges that the lease agreement is “unfair and unreasonable,” in part because the congregation was not represented by an attorney in negotiating it.
But beyond the lease legalities, the lawsuit has exposed a major conflict between the church, which now has a tiny congregation of a dozen members, and the Center, which was allegedly given a discounted rental rate in exchange for a promise to raise money needed for repairs to the church’s interior and its crumbling façade.
“The compromised structure and dilapidated condition of the Premises pose serious safety concerns,” the lawsuit contends. “The below-market rent was, in part, due to Tenant’s obligation under the Lease to raise funds towards restoration and take steps towards restoring the Premises, which it never did.”
Susan Sullivan, a board member of the Center, told West Side Rag that the nonprofit has “invested $494,000 in building repairs over the last five years, including replacing a roof, installing and paying the leasing costs of a new sidewalk shed, and installing a new alarm system.”
Estimates of the total cost for repairs vary greatly: the church says $50 million is needed, while the Center puts the estimate at $18 million. The nearly half a million dollars invested by the Center in the past five years does not come close to either estimate, and the Center did not provide details on further fundraising efforts.
“The Center at West Park is in full compliance with its lease obligations,” lawyer Michael Hiller, who represents the Center, told the Rag by email. Hiller called the lawsuit’s charges “bogus.” The lease, he said, “expressly grants the Center the unilateral right to extend the lease term for five years,” which the Center says it notified the church it wanted to do (the current lease runs out at the end of this year). “It further [states] that all required authorizations for the Lease, including the extension, were obtained prior to its execution,” according to Hiller, who charged that the church wants to walk away from its obligations in order “to reap an economic windfall at the expense of a treasured landmark.”
The church’s request for ending landmark status is currently before the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission, which is expected to rule on it this fall.
Asked why the congregation choose now to sue, when the Center asked to extend the lease six months ago, and the landmarks commission is getting close to determining the church’s fate, a spokesperson for the church, said: “Earlier this year, the Center was advised that exercising the renewal of the lease would void it because it was not properly authorized pursuant to New York State law.” Despite that notice, the statement said, “the Center subsequently sent a letter to the Church seeking a renewal of the lease, which was followed by a letter stating that the Center did not intend to vacate. Under these circumstances, the Church had no choice but to initiate litigation,” because the church is out of funds and can no longer afford to have the Center as a tenant at below-market rent.
Lawyer Hiller disputed the church’s explanation, arguing that the lawsuit was designed to remove an impediment to the proposed property sale – namely, the extension of the Center’s lease by five years, which could thwart the proposed plan to build apartments, if the landmarks commission removes the church’s landmark status.
From what I understand, the proposed high rise these people want erected will rise far above the rooftop terraces of the adjacent buildings, cutting off the southern view. What a ridiculous situation.
What of it? Residents lose their lot line views all the time.
You do know that there is no right to a view in NY right?
Did anyone say there was a “right” to a view? No. A small group of people want to get an historical landmark declassified so they can sell it and have a big payday from an entity that will also ruin the views
I think that “church” has become an unproductive eyesore, though the proposed high rise idea seems like a loser as well.
I’m going with this last paragraph of the story above as the most likely explanation for this sudden yet timely litigation:
“Lawyer Hiller disputed the church’s explanation, arguing that the lawsuit was designed to remove an impediment to the proposed property sale – namely, the extension of the Center’s lease by five years, which could thwart the proposed plan to build apartments, if the landmarks commission removes the church’s landmark status.”
A 12-member church attempting to play the roles of both bully and victim simultaneously would be pretty funny if it weren’t so not.
Here’s hoping the Landmarks commission does the right thing and upholds this historic building’s protected status. We don’t need another ugly residential castle blotting out the sky, we need a neighborhood of beauty, culture, history and community spaces. The facade can be renovated far more cheaply than the wildly inflated estimates the developer submitted. I’m with the Center!
If WP congregation fails at LPC level they can always pursue legal action in federal or state courts.
They would lose. These landmark designations have to mean something, that’s why they were created. If they take it to court and win, that sets a TERRIBLE precedent for the city.
In an ideal world, yes landmark designations would be meaningful, but that is not true in NYC where most of our landmarking occurs to pre-emptively stop new development and not for actual historic preservation purposes.
If this is the way this church does business, I say to Hell with ’em.
Moderator: Really, you let this comment by “Carol” through. Although the writer may not understand what she wrote the reference to temple/money changers is using an anti-Semitic reference.
You’re right, removed.
What? You think other faiths are any better?
Hard to blame the church – I wouldn’t want to keep renting to a tenant who was attempting to force a sale to them on the cheap.
The church is being very greedy and not church-like. Take less money from a buyer who wants to build a smaller building and the problem is solved. Not that complicated.
Is the size of the building the issue?
This is literally Manhattan, if neighbors don’t want to live near tall buildings, they are welcome to move to the burbs.
Wow, ever hear of city planning? NYC was not meant to be high rises in every neighborhood. The added density and traffic cannot be absorbed.
That’s a very easy statement to make. Would you take less for your home? Also, the proposed buyer will be including 10,000 sq ft of space in the development for the church as a place of worship and a community space. Someone building a smaller building may not want or be able to do so.
Considering the Center at West Park has been actively working with public officials to impede what the church feels is the best use of its property (including using church property to post signs blasting the church’s plans), it’s not surprising the church doesn’t want to continue to rent to The Center anymore at below-market rents.
Tear the unsafe eyesore down and build something new there.
Please honor history and landmarks! We don’t need another tall building in the neighborhood!
You may not need another tall building in the neighborhood if you bought property years ago or live in a rent stabilized building. The rest of us, people who are subject to market rents or need to find a new home for a growing family, desperately need more housing in the neighborhood.
You really think they,’re going to build middle class housing.
? Dream on
A redesign option from NY magazine’s Curbed site: https://www.curbed.com/2022/07/west-park-presbyterian-church-landmarks-reconstruction-demolition.html
Thank you for posting that link. Very interesting. I don’t think a 25 story high rise is the answer and would look horrible on that corner. Eyesore. The 3rd option was interesting. Although I am not a huge fan of the modern design on top I think the compromise of height, keeping the exterior of the church (bc it really is beautiful – when you can see it for the few minute the shed wasn’t there (being replaced) it kinda satisfies everyone’s complaint about tearing down the entire church & building apartments. I hope others take a look at the article as well – especially the congregants who want to sell. This may be the best option for everyone
I have worked with Michael Hiller. He is a good guy, knows the law inside and out, and knows the facts in a case.
I really have no opinion on the church building. It is fascinating though how folks on the UWS, many of whom have rent stabilized apartments, think they have every right to tell property owners of non-residential buildings what they may and may not do with their property.
Fascinating to me is a major religious institution has occupied the space for decades and paid NO taxes, let the building fall to disarray, has sparse local attendance, but wants to sell it now and reap huge profits….to do “God’s work”?
Ever hear of the Landmarks Law?? As in law. This is a major historic LANDMARK and regulated by LAW! The church wants the Landmarks Commission to allow it to remove its landmark status which is almost never done. Were it not for the Landmarks Law we would not have Grand Central Station, the NY Public Library, Central Park, the Chrysler Building, etc., etc. There is barely a developer in this city who would not have done his level best to destroy them.
By the way. I live on the UWS and own my apartment.
But part of the problem is that thus building was only recently designated a landmark and if I understand the history of the church’s designation correctly (and please correct me if I am wrong) is that our elected officials only fought to have it designated a landmark when a developer was planning to purchase the property from the church. The same officials promised all kids of monetary support to repair and maintain the church, monetary support that never materialized.
I stand corrected. The West Park Church was designated a landmark in January of 2010. That would be 12 years ago-hardly recent.
I don’t disagree that 12 years ago is “hardly recent.” Heck, I tell me kids things that happened when I was there age and they think dinosaurs were roaming NYC at the same time. The more important take away for me is not the “when” was the church designated a landmark but more of the “how” it was. It almost seems as if our elected officials and the community fought to have it designated a landmark when a deal may have been in place to have it sold. Along with that came the promises of funding. I have no problem with the Landmarks Law and think it serves a very valuable purpose. I just don’t like when groups use laws like this a both a hammer and a shield.
The church was designated a landmark over 20 years ago. It is considered one of the most important examples of Romanesque Revival in the city as noted by the Landmarks Commission. It was very historically distinctive or it could never have been landmarked. There was money raised for the church over the years. The church stands to make $33 mil in this deal!! No taxes! Were it not for that kind of windfall which was dangled by eager developers for years, I believe the church leaders would never have allowed the church to decline as it has. All who protest know that’s the case. It can be saved.
Thank you – this is helpful as I read about the issue. Again, the law allows the Church not to pay taxes (that is certainly a debate for another day) so I can’t fault them. I am trying to find information on the deal itself – purchase price, does the church have to pay any portion of that back to the buyer for building them the space within the new development, etc. A bad metaphor perhaps, but the “devil is in the details….”
Appreciate the civil dialogue.
There’s a lost irony here. The church which exists tax-free has devised a plan to destroy a historic landmark which will reap them millions and millions of dollars! The windfall profits go to the Presbytery. So the church destroys the historic legacy of the community and New York City to profit from it-not just a little, but a lot. All tax-free folks. No capital gains. No nothing. There is something very wrong when you can remove the landmark status of a piece of NY history-landmarked because of its importance, to exploit as a cash cow-and then pay no taxes! If this government does not address the tax free status bestowed upon religious organizations who have discovered big real estate, the future looks grim for this city and others. Churches and synagogues are major targets of developers to turn into luxury condos. One very famous one-Jared Kushner.
If you’re worried about the tax base, the sale & development would be improvement as the condos would be paying real estate taxes and residents would likely end up paying NYC taxes.
In the status quo, the building continues to deteriorate and provides no benefit to the community.
The Church is a stunning irreplaceable building that should be saved. The Church wants to kick the center out because of revenge for opposing the knockdown. The Center has invested money to fix issues with the Church. Sorry, the Church congregation of less than a dozen let this stunning building go into disrepair. I have walked past this building all the time for many years. I never saw a banner or anything from the Church saying help us fix the Church or some kind of event for a fundraiser to fix the building.
To me it is neither stunning nor irreplaceable. To me it’s a hideous uselss monument to a bygone superstition and replacing with dwellings for which there is a dire need is what makes sense. So, opinions vary on this.
I agree there is a dire need for housing on the UWS and this would be a great benefit to our community, unclear how Andrew and those blocking this development proposes the ~12 congregants are supposed to be able to afford to maintain the church building.
Center at West Park brought this on themselves. As owners of the building, the Church and its congregation have the sole and exclusive right to determine the fate of the building. In this regard, the landmarking is an illegal “taking” under the law, and the church would win if it sued the City and LPC. As well, it is an impingement on the church’s First Amendment right to “freely exercise” its religion, and the church would win all the way to the Supreme Court if it decided to go that route.
Let’s end this fiasco now. The LPC needs to approve the hardship application and allow the church to determine its own destiny. Anything else is morally, ethically, and even legally, wrong.
Once again you are tiptoeing on the edge of a “taxation is theft” position, because you hold individual owner’s rights to use a property ad libitum as absolute. Not so. Landmarking is an illegal taking “under the law”? It is precisely a law that grounds the process of landmarking.
On the principles you defend, when I lived in the exurbs, I could have set up a tannery or slaughterhouse on my 1/2 acre lot in the middle of the village, no restrictions applied.
There is no justifiable “hardship” when an owner allows the landmarked building to deteriorate. Your “legally” wrong shows that you do not know the law.
” It is precisely a law that grounds the process of landmarking.”
Ever heard of a “law” being found unconstitutional? Even one that has been in effect for a long time? Say, maybe…100 years, as was the case with New York gun control laws? Or 50 years, as was the case with a woman’s right to terminate a pregnancy?
Just because something is a law at any given point in time does not make it ethical or just.
For comparison, the case (in Texas) of a church wanting to demolish an historically significant structure to use the land as a parking lot. Texas HB 2496 provides that churches must consent to being landmarked, and further that a church may withdraw the landmark consent AT ANY TIME.
Sec.A211.0165.AA OWNER CONSENT REQUIRED TO DESIGNATE HISTORIC LANDMARK. A municipality that has established a process for designating places or areas of historical, cultural, or architectural importance and significance through the adoption of zoning regulations or zoning district boundaries may not designate a property as a local historic landmark unless the owner of the property consents to the designation. The municipality must allow an owner to withdraw consent at any time during the designation process.
So there. Private property ownership rights DO NOT have to be trampled on by some NIMBY gadfly shenenanigans over sight lines. One of the few historically documented cases where Texas is more progressive than New York.
Oh dear. A case where Texas is more progressive than New York!!! Seriously?? Got news for you. Private property rights of a church that no one living paid for-and is a historic landmark-that’s being taken because of NIMBY’s? You want to get your shorts in a knot? How about eminent domain?? How about you paid for a condo which is your home which you also pay taxes on and the state and city decide they are going to mow down your condo along with many others so a developer can build 9 or 10 super tall office towers in their place. Because they’ve deemed the neighborhood blighted and given a private developer a new Hudson Yards as a land grant! And because they say tax dollars from these towers will pay to redo Penn Station-even though the federal government has already promised to fund it. So much for private property. So if you want to rail against the taking of private property that NIMBY’s have nothing to do with rail against the developer throwing people out on their fannies to take the home they are living in and they paid for! Faux outrage if ever I’ve heard it that would leave NY and this country without a historic legacy.
Good points, Marco.
Opponents of proposed Penn Station towers (instead of focus on rail and health of neighborhood):
If the 12 parishioners of West Park and their developer prospective buyer want to go all the way to SCOTUS, I can’t stop them. Right now we’re not in Texas but in a place that has a landmarks law for good reason. As it is, the landmarks law allows the property owner to seek judicial review of the final designation decision. I don’t know whether the church did that when the building was landmarked.
hahha. so says you.
People really really hate housing in this neighborhood
Billy, while it is true that we have a desperate housing shortage in the city and the UWS which has contributed to increasing homelessness and human suffering, have you considered that the developer might make a profit?
with all do respect are you saying that the developer should not make a profit? How else will anything ever get built?
OMG! The developer might make a profit? Send them to Siberia or wherever the Chinese government sends unwanted capitalists for re-education.
Renovate the church Do not let real estate interests dictate on land use , on land marks , , on what’s best for OUR neighborhood . Alchemy would put a building on Amsterdam Ave. with no affordable housing , . Step up neighbors , !!