The debate continues to rage. Advocates looking for a way to save West Park Presbyterian Church called on the Landmarks Preservation Commission on June 13 to uphold the landmark status that would bar alteration or sale. Church members on the other hand argue that the small congregation is in debt and cannot afford to make repairs estimated to cost $50 million. They are seeking a hardship exemption to be able to sell the building to a real estate developer.
“For 20 years West Park has tried to find a solution for a deteriorating building,” Marsha Flowers, member of West Park Presbyterian Church for the past 30 years said in her testimony about the church at 165 W. 86th on the corner with Amsterdam Ave. The church was declared a landmark in 2010 but even back then church leaders objected to the landmark status because it severely restricts what a building owner can do to alter the structure.
“In 2010, when the building was landmarked—no funds have materialized. For the past 13 years the congregation has spent time and money trying to keep the building safe and usable. These efforts have cost us our membership, our pastoral support, have taken away from what we could have done as a church, from all the mission work that West Park has historically been noted for. Our focus has had to be on keeping the building up and has left us with debt. We made a very hard decision to sell the building. I have to ask, after 20 years, after 13 years of landmarking, where is the money? It has just not been forthcoming, and I don’t know why we would have confidence today to say that it will come if it hasn’t come in the past 13 years.”
With their funds exhausted, she said the aging congregation wants to sell to a developer, Alchemy Partners, for $33 million which would build luxury condos on the site, but also include space for a new smaller house of worship within the new tower.
But that does not wash with Council Member, Gale A. Brewer and New York Senator Brad Hoylman-Sigal or other community based groups, former LPC Commissioners: Stephen Byrns, Roberta Brandes Gratz, and Mike Devonshire. Community groups that added their voices to those seeking to block the hardship application approval by the LPC include the New York Landmarks Conservancy, Historic Districts Council, West End Preservation Society, Village Preservation, Save Harlem Now!, Lower East Side Preservation Initiative, and the Central Park West Neighbors Association as well as local residents.
Brewer was among those who pushed to have the church landmarked in 2010 and does not want it sold and knocked down today. She says the $50 million repair bill that church leaders are claiming is inflated and that the repairs would cost far less, according to her estimates.
“I believe that the Presbytery has not demonstrated a financial hardship,” Brewer said. “Their application must be denied. The applicant is seeking to demolish the last of its kind church not by reason of economic hardship, but rather as an economic opportunity,” Brewer said in her testimony.
“Hardship applications are put only in those rare situations in which the landmark had sustained such massive damage and simply cannot function for its intended use. Here, yes, we are in need of repairs, but the church continues to function and serve the community graced by its beauty. WJE, a nationally recognized firm has conducted an independent assessment of the church and they concluded that the cost of repair is a fraction of what has been represented by the applicant [$50 million]. The church’s insurance carrier has surveyed the church every year and repeatedly issued policies providing coverage—a confirmation that the building is structurally sound. The church is currently rented and sublet to artists and religious organizations who use the facility. The Center for West Park has already put up half a million dollars and we do and can raise some money to purchase the church from the Presbytery. All the Presbytery has to say is we are not doing Alchemy, give us some money because we deserve to be compensated. We want to compensate the Presbytery, but we do not want this church torn down for expensive condos and not one unit of affordable housing.”
Some celebrities including Wendell Pierce, Amy Schumer and Mark Ruffino appeared at a June 10 rally to save the historic structure.
“The idea that we would even consider changing this landmark, destroying it, is a corrupt idea,” Wendell Pierce, actor said at the rally on Saturday, June 10.
That didn’t sit well with Stephen Phelps, a retired Presbyterian minister.
“I heard actor Wendell Pierce on the news claiming that this appeal for a hardship waiver is just rich men manipulating city regs for profit–he couldn’t be more wrong,” Phelps said in his testimony.
“This hardship waiver is sought by a small congregation in order to exercise their first amendment right to worship freely. They are not rich, they have no tens of millions to restore the building, no manipulation here. The church is up against the wall, the wall is collapsing.”
The ongoing debate of whether to preserve the West Park Presbyterian Church will certainly be solved–but does not look like any time soon. Calls to the LPC to see when a decision might be rendered in the controversial debate were not returned by press time.
“I have to ask, after 20 years, after 13 years of landmarking, where is the money? It has just not been forthcoming, and I don’t know why we would have confidence today to say that it will come if it hasn’t come in the past 13 years,” Marsha Flowers, member of West Park Presbyterian Church for the past 30 years said in her testimony.
“The Center for West Park has already put half a million dollars and we do and can raise some money to purchase the church from the Presbytery. All the Presbytery has to say is we are not doing Alchemy, give us some money because we deserve to be compensated. We want to compensate the Presbytery, but we do not want this church torn down for expensive condos and not one unit of affordable housing,” Council Member, Gale A. Brewer who landmarked the church in 2010 said in her testimony.