Most of the roughly 50 people in the audience at a Board of Standards and Appeals meeting last Thursday were there to protest the conversion of their church, the First Church of Christ, Scientist, into luxury condominiums.
Some wore t-shirts with the church’s slogan “New Beginnings.” And, in a rare outcome for cases like this, a new beginning is exactly what the church, at 361 Central Park West, was granted. The board rejected by a vote of 3-1, with one recusal, the proposal for Joseph Brunner’s North Development Group to expand and build 34 units in the church, which was built by Carrére and Hastings in 1903 and landmarked in 1974.
“We’ve seen several iterations that have done nothing but shifted … that revenue around, shifted the costs around,” Commissioner Dara Ottley-Brown told the developers at the meeting. “It’s very hard to find credibility in a new set of numbers.” Ultimately, the board did not find the new analysis, which was the third time this year the developers had pleaded their case before the board, credible.
Several changes were made to this presentation compared to the others, including an updated estimate that the cost of the appliances in each unit would be closer to $35,000 rather than $10,000. The developers also reduced the number of units from 39 to 34. “I get it, we’ve been through several hearings,” said Mitch Korbey, North Development Group’s attorney. “This is an extraordinary project … and something I think is the right thing to do.” Korbey cited the original approval of the Landmarks Preservation Commission as a recommending factor, though it was also rejected by the Department of Buildings around the same time.
Ottley-Brown took the lead in questioning the developers, whom she said had not made an effort to market the units, as is usually done with luxury condos long before they are completed.
After the commissioners were finished, at least 20 members of the public lined up to voice their opposition, with only one speaker expressing approval for the project. Representatives from City Council Member Mark Levine, Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, the Central Park West Neighborhood Association and Landmark West were just a few of those to speak.
Terry Starks, a former pastor at the First Church of Christ, Scientist was received especially warmly and ended his three minutes to considerable applause. “If you give me two to three years, you wouldn’t have room enough to put me,” Starks said, pledging to fill the church to capacity. “We’re not looking at numbers, we’ve looking at lives … I’m asking you to give me an opportunity to restore that church back to its community. This will be one of the greatest decisions you ever made. I promise you.” Several members of his former congregation also testified to their church’s significance in their lives.
What happens next with the church is uncertain, as its funding situation remains to be seen. At the meeting, attorney Michael Hiller alluded to two parties that had expressed interest in rehabilitating the property, one of which may have been fended off by the developers. Options for the church may include a children’s museum or event space that would allow the congregation to continue holding services there. “I’m thrilled,” Hiller said. “The decision safeguards landmarks in the city of New York for at least another generation. This was the single most important decision and variance application in the last decade or longer, because had the developers prevailed … every landmark building would have become a target.”