Preservation and landmarking disputes sometimes make for hard choices. Whether to raze crumbling West-Park Presbyterian Church at Amsterdam Avenue and West 86th Street might not be the easiest call at first glance. The pretty, 140-year old, Romanesque-Revival structure is a rare grace note amidst mostly drab surroundings.
But the congregation’s desperate financial plight combined with the hypocrisy, insincerity and vested interests of those opposed to demolition justify only one response: Bring it on!
The church where none any longer worship needs an estimated $50 million of work to prevent it from collapsing. It’s been surrounded by scaffolding for 20 years. The Department of Buildings recently ordered it closed for three months. It has more than 60 open and active DOB violations.
The tiny surviving congregation — which switched to Zoom during the pandemic — doesn’t have anything like what it would cost to fix West-Park. (Presbyterian churches are individually owned by congregations, unlike Catholic ones owned by a rich archdiocese.)
Yet amidst much noisy debate, and despite its perilous state, the church was designated an official city landmark 10 years ago, when it was already a wreck. The congregation is seeking a “hardship” blessing from the Landmarks Preservation Commission to demolish the building so it can sell the property to a real-estate developer for $33 million. (Such hardship rulings are rare but not unheard of.) A new building at the site would include a significant new facility for the struggling church congregation.
The sandstone structure has deteriorated to the point that last year, the south wall was “peeling away from the building and tilting towards 86th Street,” Leaf said.
But naturally, the usual preservation-at-any-cost suspects are howling to deny the church’s request. They include the same people who pledged to help raise funds to rescue the building a decade ago.
Leading the charge is Councilwoman Gale Brewer, who will speak against demolition at a Community Board 7 Zoom meeting May 5. Brewer tenaciously fought for landmark status 10 years ago.
She pledged at the time she’d “work to raise the necessary funds to restore the building.” But her office has raised only a meager $35,000.
Also on the ramparts is the Center at West Park, a worthy arts-and-culture nonprofit that is based inside the church and pays absurdly low rent — around $1.65 per square foot — to the congregation under a lease that’s about to expire.
The organization claimed to have spent $445,000 in the past five years for “significant upkeep” of the building — not an insignificant sum but far short of the $18 million that’s needed for façade restoration alone.
And as is common in New York preservation battles, some who take a dim view of any proposed new building stand to lose their own views if the project goes forward.
Among the Center’s most vocal advocates for preserving the church is much-on-TV board member Susan E. Sullivan, who has termed the situation a “David vs. Goliath” struggle. Goliath would be real-estate developer Alchemy Properties, which would buy the site so it could build a 19-story apartment building that would include 10,000 square feet of space for the church.
But public records show that Sullivan owns a home on the twelfth floor of 161 W. 86th Street, a luxury pre-war co-op building next door to the church. Real-estate sites show that apartments in the same line as Sullivan’s have several rooms that face west — i.e., where the new, taller tower would rise.
Ahem — might not the loss of open, west-facing views diminish the value, and the charm, of Sullivan’s pad in a building where a unit two floors below hers sold for more than $4 million in 2016? Sullivan commented by e-mail, “the only weight [church demolition] carries for me is the potential loss of an historic building and shuttering a vibrant performing arts center.”
What’s more irksome about Upper West Side preservationist zealotry is that the vast district is already one of the city’s most heavily landmarked areas: Some 70% of sites are either immortalized as individual landmarks or part of “historic districts” where demolition and new construction are nearly as impossible as for specific buildings.
Those who’d preserve everything like to call themselves “progressive.” But they’re the opponents of real progress, such as replacing an unusable old church with modern apartments and a house of worship where congregants can actually worship.