West Park Congregation Pulls Hardship Application Seeking Permission to Raze UWS Church

In order to sell the 141-year-old structure to a developer who wanted to build luxury apartments, West Park Presbyterian Church’s congregation had sought a hardship exemption from the Landmarks Preservation Commission. In a surprise move, the church pulled the application on Jan. 5, only days before the LPC was scheduled to hold a vote on the matter. They may return to it later, pending a resolution of a tenant dispute.

| 09 Jan 2024 | 12:42

The West Park Presbyterian Church will not yet be razed, after its congregation pulled a “hardship” application that was set to be voted on days later by the Landmarks Preservation Commission.

The church cited a dispute over a lease as the reason for their withdrawal. If the application were approved, it would remove a major obstacle in the way of a developer demolishing the 160-year-old building and erecting luxury housing on the lot, namely by removing the church’s 2010 landmark designation. The “hardship” the congregation has put forward is a lack of adequate funding for repairs, and they believe that building high-end apartments could better provide money for the congregation’s mission and their community footprint.

If the application had not been withdrawn and ended up being fully approved by the LPC, the congregation has a contract inked with Alchemy Properties that would see the church sold for $33 million.

Celebrities including Mark Ruffalo, Common, and Amy Schumer have railed against the plans to demolish the historic structure. They’re also helped with fundraising efforts for a community group that had been renting the space, The Center at West Park.

In a statement, the congregation indicated that it intends on revive the application at some point in the future, noting that “after more than two decades of trying to keep up with repairs and waiting for unfulfilled promises of fund-raising to come through, we ran out of time and money and must explore other options for our congregation’s future.”

They’ve faced considerable community pushback in doing so. The aforementioned celebrities have notably aligned themselves with City Councilmember Gale Brewer to save the beloved culture center and worship space. The Center at West Park has also been heavily involved in advocating against the demolition. Predictably, these organizations and advocates reacted to Jan. 2’s news with ecstatic joy.

Brewer told the West Side Spirit that she was “thrilled” to hear the news from the Landmarks Preservation Commission. She noted she had been in touch with counsel for The Center at West Park, which would plan on appealing the decision under Article 78 (which allows for challenges against administrative agencies) if the hardship application was approved.

Brewer said that this was because the demolition was not “shovel-ready,” or able to proceed more or less immediately, which the Landmarks Preservation Committee requires applicants to prove. Brewer believed that the hardship application was likely “going to be denied,” sparing the LPC from possibly unfavorable litigation in the future.

The Center at West Park confirmed that they would’ve planned on appealing, but they also emphasized that they’d have to fulfill a couple of requirements before going through with such an Article 78 lawsuit.

Brewer also expressed optimism when it came to The Center at West Park taking over the repairs process. “They have quite a bit of money in the bank,” she said. This meant that repairs on the roof and the removal of scaffolding–two major priorities–would be able to proceed apace.

According to fact-sheet provided toWest Side Spirit by The Center at West Park, they’ve reportedly raised $1.4 million thus far. They also claim that they spent $270,000 on interior and exterior “improvements” in 2023. According to Don Freidman, an outside engineer hired by The Center and retained by the Landmarks Preservation Commission, restoration of the whole building will cost $10 million over the next five-ten years. Facade work will cost $1.7 million. The congregation, which has shrunk to only 12 members, has estimated repair costs to be closer to $50 million.

Debby Hirshman, The Center’s Executive Director, confirmed her organization’s repair estimates. She said she was more eager, however, to highlights what protecting the “incredible gem” of the church would mean for the community.

“What’s been missed in stories is why Mark Ruffalo and Wendell Pearce and Matt Damon care so much. They began their careers in spaces like the Center at West Park,” she said.

“The need in New York City for incubator spaces, for young and emerging artists, for workshopping works–whether you’re new or a veteran–is critical. We’ve lost so many of those in New York,” she added.