A ‘David Versus Goliath’ Dispute Over West-Park Presbyterian Church

The Center at West Park, the church’s sole tenant, is fighting to preserve the UWS landmark — as it crumbles

| 15 Apr 2022 | 09:18

A battle is brewing on the Upper West Side over an architectural piece of history: the West-Park Presbyterian Church. The cash-strapped congregation has a tentative plan to sell the landmarked building to a developer that would demolish it to erect a new, mostly residential high-rise, according to representatives of the church. But it’s a vision not without hurdles — especially if the Center at West Park, the church’s sole tenant, has any sway.

“Is this going to be a slam dunk?” said Susan Sullivan, a member of the Center’s board, in reference to the group’s ambition to preserve the landmark. “No — it’s an absolute David versus Goliath.” The church, built in the late 1880s at the corner of West 86th Street and Amsterdam Avenue, has long been in a state of disrepair, its crumbling facade harboring more than merely aesthetic dangers.

Known as a site of LGBTQ+ activism, once the headquarters of God’s Love We Deliver, which provides meals to those with HIV/AIDS — and designated as a landmark in 2010 — the church no longer houses religious services. The dwindling congregation moved its activities online during the pandemic, gathering virtually for bible study. For the past five years, the building has become a haven for the arts, with the Center at West Park offering up affordable space to performers and artists-in-residence. Now, with the impending end of the Center’s lease — and a desperate lack of funds for crucial (and costly) repairs on the part of the congregation — the fate of the landmark is in limbo.

“The goal is to continue as a congregation,” Roger Leaf, chair of the West-Park Presbyterian Church’s Administrative Commission, told The Spirit. “To do that ... the way forward is to free themselves from the yolk of this building.”

An Expensive History

Even when the church became a landmark, it had problems, Leaf said. The 140-year-old building is made of sandstone, an “extremely soft” material that’s deteriorated over time. For the last 20-plus years, there’s been a sidewalk “shed,” or protective scaffolding, in place to shield pedestrians from the declining exterior. At the end of last year, the congregation hurried to fix the south wall of the church, which Leaf described as “peeling away from the building and tilting towards 86th Street.”

“The challenge of maintaining the building has pretty much driven the membership of the church down to a paltry number,” Leaf said. “There are only twelve members — active members — of the church today; The church no longer has a pastor.” The numerous needed repairs would add up: In 2011, the cost to rehab the church’s facade alone was estimated to total $14.6 million, Leaf explained, a number that has only risen in the decade since.

In a written statement, however, Sullivan argued that the building “is in better working condition today than the day it was officially landmarked.” The building is owned by the local congregation, as is common in the Presbyterian denomination; The Presbytery of New York City is only able to provide minimal financial aid, according to Leaf.

The lower-than-usual cost of rent offered to the Center, he said, came with an expectation that it could thus chip in for building maintenance. Over the last five years, the Center has sunk $445,000 into significant upkeep. Is it a reasonable burden for a tenant? “We don’t own the building, so we never thought that it would be interpreted that we were responsible for fixing the exterior,” Sullivan said.

She explained that the Center would like to buy the building, and also claimed that the Center’s lease grants the group the right to renew as a tenant for another five years — a right she alleged that the congregation is denying. A spokesperson for the church said it’s in “ongoing discussions” with the Center.

Staying Afloat

Last week, the congregation filed a “hardship application” with the Landmarks Preservation Commission, a rarity that would ultimately allow for the complete demolition of the historic building. Only 19 other hardship applications have previously been submitted to the commission, Valerie Campbell, a representative of West-Park Presbyterian Church, told The Spirit. “We believe that the West-Park church really is a unique set of conditions,” Leaf added.

But it’s also revered as “one of the best examples of a Romanesque Revival style religious structure” in the city, according to documentation from the Landmarks Preservation Commission. So the Center has decided to “lawyer up,” Sullivan said, in an attempt to preserve the local landmark — and it’s banking on support from the community, too. “It’s repairable...we just need to raise the money to do it,” Sullivan said. “Every place in the world that values their landmarks, that’s what they do — they preserve the spalling brick or whatever the material is.”

In the beginning of May, deliberation will begin with a hearing conducted by Community Board 7, which is not yet able to comment on the burgeoning debate surrounding the church.

Community First

If approved, the West-Park Presbyterian Church’s plans with Alchemy Properties, a private New York real estate development company, call for a 19-story residential building to be constructed on the site where the church currently stands. There’d be 10,000 square feet set aside on the ground and basement floors for “church-owned community space,” Leaf said, which could be used by the congregation and by local artists or organizations.

But Sullivan suggested that something less tangible — and of the utmost significance — would be lost in the redevelopment. “The Center draws so much of its relevance from the fact that it’s in a building where God’s Love We Deliver was created,” she said. “It reeks of social activism, and that’s important to us.”

If a landmark of such historical stature falls in a city of millions, will it make a sound? In the case of the West-Park Presbyterian Church, the answer is clear.

“The challenge of maintaining the building has pretty much driven the membership of the church down to a paltry number. There are only twelve members — active members — of the church today; The church no longer has a pastor.” Roger Leaf, chair of the West-Park Presbyterian Church’s Administrative Commission