Posted May 3, 2022 2:55 PM by West Side Rag

Photographs by Carol Tannenhauser.

By Carol Tannenhauser

The future of West Park Presbyterian Church at West 86th Street and Amsterdam Avenue will be judged on Thursday, when Community Board 7’s preservation committee hears arguments for and against destroying the historic 19th-century structure.

The church congregation, which owns the building and is down to 12 members, argues that because the building needs millions of dollars in repairs, tearing it down is the only way to save them from financial ruin and extinction. complete.

“We have a church where the cost of repairs exceeds what the fair market value of the building would be after the repairs,” Roger Leaf, a representative for the congregation, told the Rag. “An exemption from hardship [from city landmarks officials] offers us a way forward that can allow the congregation to recover and become an important institution on the Upper West Side, as it was in the past.

If city officials allow the church to be destroyed, a developer is waiting in the wings, ready to use the land for a 19-story residential condominium that would also provide worship space for 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 monument to be preserved.

“This is a perilous time for New York landmarks,” says Susan Sullivan, board member of the Center at Park West, tenant of the church building. “The trend of scrapping historic buildings in favor of skyscrapers and supertalls marks a great loss to the culture and fabric of our urban neighborhoods.”

Photograph via West Park Presbyterian Church.

West Park, completed in 1890, was designated an architectural landmark in 2010, meaning proposed changes to the building must be approved by the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission. Before the commission’s review, those changes are subject to review by local community boards, according to the city’s charter — in this case, CB7, whose preservation committee will hold Thursday night’s hearing on Zoom at 6:30 p.m. . Here is the link to register.

A report by the Landmarks Preservation Commission on the hearing that led to West Park’s designation in 2010 says 13 witnesses objected, including the congregation’s pastor and several members, while 56 spoke out. in favour. Historical supporters included then (and now) Upper West Side City Council member Gale Brewer; Bill de Blasio, also a member of the city council at the time; and Linda Rosenthal, Member of the State Assembly. “The commission also received numerous letters and emails, in support of the designation,” the report says, but makes no mention of opposition messages.

The commission voted in favor of landmark status despite opposition from the church — and despite the fact that, eight years earlier, the building had been deemed unsafe by the city’s Buildings Department. The safety hazard meant the church had to install a sidewalk shelter around the building, protecting pedestrians from injury if pieces of the facade fell. Twenty-one years later, the shed still surrounds the facade of the building; the church was unable to afford substantial repairs, other than emergency repairs.

The strong political support for branding West Park Presbyterian may have been based as much on the social history of the congregation as 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 living with HIV and AIDS. God’s Love We Deliver, a non-profit organization that delivers meals to the sick, set up its first commercial kitchen there.

Until recently, it looked like the protective shed on the sidewalk would hold forever and the building would be allowed to fall further and further into disrepair. Then, in March, Alchemy Properties, a New York-based developer, made an offer to the congregation: Alchemy would buy the property and turn it into a residential condominium, with space set aside for the church – provided the lot is delivered. empty.

Demolition would require the church building to be released from its historic designation. And so, the congregation applied to the landmarks commission for a “hardship” exemption, which would remove its obligation to preserve the building; conservation costs would reach $50 million, according to church estimates, of which $17 million would be needed just to repair the facade.

A ruling in favor of the church’s request “would mark a rare reversal for the city-run panel,” Gothamist reported, noting that the commission had only received 19 hardship waiver requests in the past 57. years. Of those, 13 have been approved, four rejected, and two remain pending, according to Gothamist. K Karpen, co-chair of the preservation committee, told the Rag: “It’s completely different from what we normally do.”

The Center at Park West

Alchemy’s offer isn’t the church’s only bailout, however. The congregation received another offer from the Center at West Park, a nonprofit that has been renting space in the church since 2010. The center has established a community performing arts center in the church, with resident artists and rehearsal and performance space for rent. In addition to its artistic goals, the Center’s website describes its mission as managing “the restoration of the iconic exterior of our historic home.”

To promote its offer, the Center conducted a media campaign to raise funds for the repairs and rally support for maintaining the building’s landmark status. But the Center’s offer of around $2 million, cited by a staff member, pales in comparison to developer Alchemy’s offer of $33 million. [for the lot]plus an additional $8.8 million to complete and furnish a new 10,000 square foot worship space for the congregation, according to Roger Leaf.

Based strictly on finances — and the fact that in the 13 years since historic designation, the church has failed to raise funds to save the building — the request for a hardship designation might seem 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 religious structure in New York”?

When giving the building landmark designation, the commission said: “The extraordinarily deep color of its red sandstone cladding and the bold forms of the church with wide rounded arched openings and a slender tower at the corner of West 86th Street and Amsterdam Avenue produce a monumental and distinguished presence along these streets. This is what would be removed, if the city allowed the hardship exemption, paving the way for a high-rise condominium at one of the Upper West Side’s major hubs.

But if the exemption is not approved, “it would almost certainly lead to the demise of the congregation,” says West Park member Roger Leaf. “He would be left to sell the building, probably with no funds or revenue from it, no place of worship, and no funds to resurrect himself.”

Thursday’s CB7 committee meeting is open to the public. Committee members will vote on whether to support the hardship waiver request, and its decision will be presented at the next full community board meeting on June 7. Meet.

Again, this meeting will take place this Thursday, May 5, at 6:30 p.m. on Zoom. Here is the link to join.

Watch for West Side Rag’s coverage on Friday.