Neither side is letting up in a battle over the West-Park Presbyterian Church, an Upper West Side landmark deemed exemplary of its kind only twelve years ago. If the local congregation gets its way, the building, which has suffered safety-related Department of Buildings violations, as well as aesthetic damages, will be sold and demolished. Community members and some politicians are fighting to keep the historic building upright.
In the latest development, during a tightly-choreographed CB7 meeting on Tuesday evening, the latter camp scored a win when a majority of the community board voted to pass a resolution expressing opposition to the congregation’s hardship application, which would strip the building of its landmark designation.
“I felt like a juror in a death penalty case,” said CB7 member Ken Coughlin, reflecting on an earlier committee meeting on the topic. The true juror will be the Landmarks Preservation Commission, which, following a June 14 hearing, will have full and final say over the church’s fate.
A Community (Board) Divided
Not all community board members were convinced on Tuesday that the deteriorating building should keep on kicking. Thirteen voted to support the hardship application (compared to 24 in favor of striking it down), with some speakers citing the building’s physical state, a dearth of funding and an unclear future as reasons to permit the building to be torn down. “We’ve had decades of wishful thinking,” said Sara Lind, a CB7 member. “It hasn’t solved the problem.”
From the start of landmark negotiations over a decade ago, the congregation opposed granting the building the special status, said Roger Leaf, chair of the church’s Administrative Commission. Now, representatives of the church claim that they are out of money to maintain and conserve the building, and that promises of community-raised funds haven’t come to fruition. “We made the difficult decision to sell the building two years ago and have since examined countless potential yet nonviable solutions, leading us to pursue the hardship,” according to a spokesperson for West-Park Presbyterian Church.
On its side, the congregation counts over 50 religious leaders across the city, who jointly signed a letter to the chair of the Landmarks Preservation Commission expressing their conviction that the congregation ought to be allowed to move forward without the West-Park building and the “significant economic burden” its landmark status has caused.
But during the final CB7 meeting on the matter, those against the church’s proposition triumphed. For some, it was about the numbers; the West-Park congregation has claimed that it would cost $50 million to repair and restore the existing church building, cause for skepticism in the community. In advance of the meeting, local nonprofit Landmark West issued a statement claiming that the $18 million price tag to fix the church’s facade, as estimated in the congregation’s application, was overblown — it would actually cost just over $6.6 million, according to Landmark West’s estimates.
“It should be challenging,” Doug Kleiman, a CB7 member, said of the hardship application process. “If the building comes down, it can never come back.”
Council Member Gale Brewer, for one, has committed herself to help fundraise for the building — again. Over a decade since initially fighting for the building’s landmark designation, Brewer now has renewed her campaign, calling for a nonprofit group to assume ownership of the church so as to more easily reap financial contributions from the community, led by elected officials.
“We already have lots of pledges to purchase the building,” Brewer said. “I don’t think this is hard.”
Other members of the public reiterated statements expressed in an earlier CB7 meeting on the topic, underscoring the unique feel and history of the building. The church is “a sublime space,” said Jody Sperling, a choreographer and Upper West Side resident. “It cannot be replaced.”
“I felt like a juror in a death penalty case.” CB7 Member Ken Coughlin