The dwindling congregation that owns the West-Park Presbyterian Church, on the corner of West 86th Street and Amsterdam Avenue, has heightened the stakes in a battle over the fate of the historic landmark — with a lawsuit against the Center at West Park, a nonprofit arts group and the building’s lone tenant.
Legal paperwork, filed on August 15, states the congregation’s intent to nullify the Center’s existing lease, signed over four years ago, such that the group can be evicted “immediately.” A spokesperson for the church told the West Side Spirit in an email that the Center would not be forced to vacate before the end of the year, since “litigation will take months.” In February, the Center invoked a “renewal option” included in the lease, hoping to remain in the building for another five years.
“Our small congregation is made up of people with modest means trying to be responsible stewards of this building in a way that supports our mission-driven work,” Marsha Flowers, who is part of the congregation and was a founding member of the Center’s board, told the Spirit in a written statement. “For more than two decades, the Church has spent every penny it has and worked as hard as we can to maintain the building.”
The congregation is currently pursuing a “hardship application” with the Landmarks Preservation Commission that would strip the building of its protected status so that it can be sold to a developer. Alchemy Properties, the prospective buyer, has presented plans to demolish the church and erect a high-rise apartment building in its place.
Legal paperwork filed on behalf of the congregation documents the Center’s “negligible” starting monthly rent of $2,200; the Center was expected also to “raise funds towards restoration and take steps towards restoring” the church, including its facade, which is in poor shape. The lease is void, the paperwork states, in part because the congregation could not extend its agreement beyond five years “in the absence of obtaining prior leave from the Court or Attorney General” and because the congregation did not have written approval from the affiliated Presbytery when initially signing the lease, per New York Religious Corporations Law.
A copy of the lease, provided to the Spirit by the Center’s attorney, Michael Hiller, affirms that each group had “full power and authority to enter into this agreement.” It also states that the Center would “retain its lease of the premises” should the church be sold by the congregation to another party. The congregation, Hiller said, has continued to accept the Center’s monthly rent payments through August.
The congregation launched its suit after the Landmarks Preservation Commission expressed that the lease presented an “issue” in moving forward with the hardship application, Hiller explained. As he sees it, the legal battle “has nothing to do with the issues that they’re raising in the lawsuit; it has everything to do with their desire to get Landmarks’ approval to destroy the building so that they can reap an economic windfall of $33 million to benefit a congregation of approximately ten people,” he said. A spokesperson for the church attributed the decision to sue now, as opposed to when the Center first expressed interest in renewing its lease, to the “time-consuming” nature of litigation.
The lawsuit’s allegations, Hiller insisted, are “bogus.”
“Litigation will take months.” A spokesperson for West-Park Presbyterian Church