Late on Thursday evening, Community Boards 7’s preservation committee voted to stamp a seal of disapproval on West-Park Presbyterian Church’s application to de-landmark and sell the church building to be razed by a developer. But committee members only reached that decision after four-plus hours of testimony before a total of over 190 attendees, many of whom couldn’t see eye to eye (or didn’t even know where, exactly, to set their sights).
“How boring, how unimaginative,” remarked Aubrey Clinedinst, an artist at the Center at West Park, of possible designs for a high-rise residential building to replace the church. “De-landmarking is the best option,” insisted Austin Celestin, an urban design student at NYU. Still others, including those on CB7, admitted confusion and indecision.
In the absence of community consensus on how the congregation ought to proceed, the public hearing revealed an overwhelming amount of uncertainty and skepticism surrounding crucial facts and figures. Now, it would seem the congregation has a slimmer chance of ultimately prevailing with its current plan in an evaluation process that’s still ongoing.
“You’ve got a fight on your hands when you’re talking to me,” said Council Member Gale Brewer, who’s long led a charge to preserve the church.
What’s the Price Tag?
Ever since 2010, when the church was designated as a landmark, it’s been in a dire state, according to the congregation, which fought landmarking the building even then. The 140-year-old building’s red sandstone exterior is deteriorating and protective scaffolding has been in place to protect pedestrians for over 20 years now. The congregation, representatives say, doesn’t have the money to turn things around.
“We have exhausted our own resources to address these needs,” Roger Leaf, chair of the church’s Administrative Commission, told The Spirit in a statement, “and the funding that local leaders and community partners committed to raising over the last decade never materialized.”
For about a year, according to Alchemy Properties President Kenneth Horn, the congregation explored ways it might rehab the church. On Thursday evening, Daniel Kaplan, an architect at FXCollaborative, said it would cost roughly $50 million to repair and restore the church as it stands. Adam Wald, executive vice president of Appraisers and Planners, presented three different options for remodeling the building while preserving some of its character; transforming it into a “community facility,” maximizing the space to create an auditorium or converting the church into a “multi-family” residential space. “We have negative returns, negative incomes across all three scenarios,” Wald said.
But many who spoke at the community board committee hearing that night — a formal step in the process of filing a hardship application with the Landmarks Preservation Commission, which the congregation did in early April — weren’t buying the numbers. “It may well be the cost of a Cadillac as opposed to, I don’t know, a Kia,” CB7 member Richard Asche said of the estimated value assigned to rehabilitating the building.
More Than Money
Others, like Heath Gottesman, president of 145 West 86th Street, argued that for safety reasons, the building must come down. The church “becomes more dangerous with every day that passes,” Gottesman said. Kaplan testified that “you can go up with your hands and literally pull the building apart.”
Over the past five years, the Center at West Park, the building’s sole tenant since the dwindling congregation ended regular services and moved its remaining activities online, has spent $445,000 on maintenance. The building has also incurred numerous costly Department of Buildings violations.
But the root of the problems continues to be cause for speculation among locals. “It seems completely contrary to the mission of the landmark system to allow an owner to mismanage it out of that status,” Avery Ryan said.
Libbie Wilcox, who’s lived in the neighborhood for decades, characterized what she’s seen happen as “absolutely demolition by neglect.”
The church, revered as a prime example of the Romanesque Revival style, carries cultural significance still appreciated by plenty of New Yorkers today. “This building is not only a stunning piece of our city’s architectural history,” said Zachary Tomlinson, the Center at West Park’s artistic director, “it is a living link between the artists and the activists past and present and — I hope — future.”
Next, CB7 will convene again for a full-board vote on the West-Park Presbyterian Church’s application — though the ultimate decision to allow or prohibit de-landmarking the church will fall in the hands of the Landmarks Preservation Commission.
“You’ve got a fight on your hands when you’re talking to me.” Council Member Gale Brewer