Members of Manhattan Community Board 7’s Preservation Committee took a stand against the proposed demolition of West Park Presbyterian Church last night, voting against the 132-year-old Upper West Side church’s application to be relieved of its landmark designation.
The committee’s 8-1 vote (with one abstention) is advisory and came at the end of a four and a half-hour meeting that included many impassioned pleas from community residents to save the crumbling red sandstone building, once described as “one of the best examples of a Romanesque Revival style religious structure in New York City.”
The issue now moves to the entire community board, which in turn will issue its recommendation to the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission that, only 12 years ago, designated the property as worthy of preservation.
This is such a tragedy ... In Europe, these grand churches and synagogues are preserved and cared for.
“My windows look right over the church, the church is a part of my life,” said Rosalind Petchesky, a distinguished professor emeritus of political science at Hunter College, who said she is in her late 70s.
Petchesky’s voice trembled as she praised the church’s history of promoting antiwar and AIDS activism. If the building were demolished, she said, “I will have to take my broken heart and leave here.”
West Park’s governing body has submitted what is known as a hardship application, a relatively rare procedure which, if approved by the LPC, would allow for the revocation of the building’s landmark status, relieving the church’s governing body of the obligation to preserve the structure.
If granted the hardship, West Park is expected to move forward with a sale to Alchemy Properties, a developer that intends to demolish the church and build a 210-foot tall residential building. On the ground floor, Alchemy would provide the church with 10,000 square feet of space for worship, community activities and arts programs. Plans also include space for a 146-seat “black box theater."
But many who spoke during Thursday’s virtual hearing opposed demolishing the church building, which has been associated with progressive causes since its earliest years — from fighting anti-Chinese immigrant bigotry and advancing civil rights, to feeding people during the AIDS crisis.
In recent years, the building has been better known as a performance and cultural space, from hosting musical and dance productions to “open mic” nights.
The cost of repairs
Church officials have estimated that renovating the 1890 structure would cost $50 million, a figure that came under intense scrutiny from those supporting preservation and who felt it was being inflated to accelerate the demolition process.
Some community residents blamed the church's leaders of “demolition by neglect,” arguing that church officials had allowed the building to deteriorate to such an extent that it could not be salvaged.
"I'm really struggling with how it could've been so mismanaged,” said Avery Ryan, a community resident who said she lives next door to the church.
“This is such a tragedy,” said Melissa Elstein, a member of the West 80s Neighborhood Association. “It's sad and it's demonstrating the difference between what's happening in New York City and in Europe. In Europe, these grand churches and synagogues are preserved and cared for.”
Roger Leaf, a trustee of the Presbytery of New York City, who serves as chair of the West Park Administrative Commission — the governing body of the church — said the decision to submit a hardship application came after a year of analysis “and was not reached lightly.”
The application, he added, contained “over a hundred pages of documentation, prepared by structural engineers, architects, restoration experts,” that corroborated the argument that saving the building would cost nearly $50 million and that maintaining it in its current condition was draining the church of funds.
“The congregation has put every penny it has into the building and has had to go into debt, so far in 2022, just to keep the lights on,” said Leaf.
A lost cause?
As part of a presentation by the development team, Daniel Kaplan, an architect with FXCollaborative, said the renovation costs included an estimated $10 million for the interior and $18 million for restoration of the facade, which is crumbling. Just this year, he said, the building had received three Department of Buildings violations totaling $70,000 in fines.
Given the substantial problems that have been identified as well as damage that has not yet been discovered, Kaplan said $50 million to salvage the building "is a very reasonable figure."
Although most members of the public were in favor of maintaining the building’s landmark status, some felt preservation was a lost cause.
“The church has been in disarray for two decades,” said Austin Celestin, a 19-year-old urban design student at New York University who said he’d grown up in the neighborhood.
The congregation has put every penny it has into the building and has had to go into debt, so far in 2022, just to keep the lights on.
Celestin said community leaders, including Councilmember Gale Brewer, had made “grand promises” to raise the necessary funds for restoration, but had not delivered.
“As much as I would like to see the building last and as beautiful as it is and as distinct as it is, de-marking is the best option,” he said.
Many others, however, rallied behind a proposal by Brewer to have control of the building transfer from the church to a nonprofit arts group, such as the Center at West Park, which has served as the building’s prime tenant for the last five years and has been responsible for, by its own count, 300 performances of music, theater and other art forms during that time.
“The idea that somebody would tear this down and build condos, it’s beyond reprehensible,” said Brewer at the hearing. “Unique buildings like this cannot be replaced.”