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.