The congregation is ready to let go of their church. The neighborhood no.
Debate over whether to preserve a once-stately Upper West Side church or raze it to make way for a luxury condominium has erupted into lawsuits, hour-long hearings — and accusations of greed and negligence.
Once the epicenter of social activism in the neighborhood, West Park Presbyterian Church’s condition has deteriorated to the point where scaffolding surrounds its exterior walls and signs of disrepair are painfully evident.
The congregation maintains that the church is beyond repair. They want the building stripped of its landmark status and sold to a developer for over $30 million, to be replaced by a 19-story luxury apartment building.
On the other side of the debate is a coalition that includes the nonprofit that is currently renting space in the church, community members, legislators and curators. They argue that it is a historic building of great significance to the neighborhood and the city that has been allowed to deteriorate.
“This is willful neglect,” said Michael Hiller, a conservative attorney representing the Center for Park West, a nonprofit arts and culture center, in a lawsuit.
“They want to get out of their lease obligation so they can tear down the building and reap the $33 million in economic windfall from its sale to a luxury condo developer.”
The Church Saga, at the corner of W. 86th St. and Amsterdam Ave. next to the iconic Barney Greengrass delicatessen, has been going on for months. It was marked by fierce debate with many twists and turns, the latest being an offer from the current occupant of the church to buy it from the congregation.
But the church has its own plans.
The dozen or so remaining worshipers at West Park Presbyterian Church say the church is well beyond repairs, with their estimate of the cost of repairs at $50 million. Their proposed deal would sell the church to developer Alchemy Properties for $33 million. This, they say, would save him expensive rehabilitation costs that have long been a problem for the church.
The ground plan was detailed at a meeting of the Monuments Preservation Commission in the spring. In addition to 19 floors of luxury condos, the space would reserve 10,000 square feet of space for a community center that the congregation could use or rent.
Worshipers say the building’s historic status has been a burden they never even wanted in the first place. The congregation voted in 2010 against the historic status of the church. Now the church is in even worse shape, with fewer members and limited funds.
The once majestic facade is collapsing. There are growing cracks in the ceiling. For the past 20 years, scaffolding has concealed the building at street level.
Marsha Flowers is one of a dozen remaining devotees. She has been a member since 1994. She has seen the scaffolding go up around the outside, the building crumble and the congregation dwindle. She’s had enough – she doesn’t see a feasible way to restore it.
“This building and the upkeep of this building literally cost us the church,” Flowers said. “Our efforts to keep it safe, to keep it compliant and to keep it insured have taken all the funds we have for these purposes, have taken all the money we have. And the focus of our energy, our focus and our efforts has been on the upkeep of this building and not on the purpose of a church, which is worship and mission.
She said the state of the church is one of the reasons the congregation has dwindled over the years. With a new space, she hopes the energy of the church can be channeled into arts programming, community activities and worship.
“It’s not something we did lightly. And we knew it was going to be controversial, but there was no other alternative,” Flowers said.
It was never really about physical space, she says. It is the people, not the building, that drive the change. That legacy, she says, is what’s important here — and selling the church while remaining in the community is one way to preserve it.
But the building will not go without a fight.
Dozens of others, including people taking a stand at community board meetings, conservationists and local officials, say the congregation has failed the church by letting it decay under their supervision.
“This church is beautiful,” said Gale Brewer, who represents the Upper West Side on the city council. “The red stone, the bell tower is more than beautiful. And that’s what we want. We don’t want an ugly new building. … We are very, very determined to try to save this church.
West Park Presbyterian is considered by conservatives to be one of the best examples of a Romanesque Revival religious structure in New York City. It was built in the 1880s and features a bold red sandstone exterior and wide arched openings. A steeple at the corner of the building rises upwards, creating a “monumental and distinguished presence along these streets”, the hs commission wrote in 2010, when the building was first spotted.
In the 20th century, the congregation championed civil rights, nuclear disarmament, same-sex marriage, and gay rights. It spoke out against the Vietnam conflict and was the original site of God’s Love We Deliver, an organization set up to deliver meals to AIDS patients.
Hiller, the attorney representing the Center for Park West, which has occupied the space since 2017, said that for all these reasons, the church is worth preserving. The center estimates that rehabilitation costs are much lower than those of the church – around $10 million.
Hiller blamed the congregation for the dilapidated state of the church.
“It’s not a circumstance where they’ve been unable to maintain the asset,” Hiller said. “They chose not to maintain the asset. They are now using the circumstances they themselves created to facilitate a transaction whereby the monument is demolished and destroyed and replaced with luxury housing.
Hiller dismissed the idea that there is a lack of viable solutions to preserve the church. Through fundraising and private donations, the center has crafted an offering that they say has a total potential value of $27 million. This would include a $3.5 million payment for the building itself, a commitment to invest $10 million in renovations, and approximately $13 million in the sale of air rights to a neighboring building to protect against a future development.
A church spokesperson noted the Buildings Department’s more than 60 open violations, adding that it would be irresponsible for the church to sell it to anyone, including the center, without a safer plan in place to restore the building.
Sean Khorsandi, executive director of the conservative non-profit group Landmark West, criticized the congregation.
“We’ve already given this building the highest level of protection possible, and the owner says, ‘It’s a dumpster. Let’s throw it away,” Khorsandi said.
“The current state of the church is the product of their own mismanagement. Plain and simple,” Khorsandi said. “…This is a case where they postponed and ignored maintenance for so many years. Now they want to be rewarded for it by saying it’s too expensive to fix. But all along it was always their responsibility.”
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Khorsandi said the church should have asked for help.
“They never asked for the community’s input…it’s just a shame they didn’t want to work with the community, and it all started with this nuclear option.”
To move forward with the demolition, the church needs the Landmarks Preservation Commission to unravel the building’s layers of protection as an official landmark.
The commission would also need to reverse the historic status of the building – something that has only happened a handful of times in the city’s history. The church should also invalidate the center’s lease, evicting them from the building so the developers can move on.
In an attempt to give the center the boot to make way for new developments, the church sued to evict the nonprofit.
The next time the church will go before the Monuments Preservation Commission has yet to be scheduled, although it is expected sometime before the end of the year.
“If West Park Presbyterian Church goes down, the others will go down,” Hiller said. “This is the frontline battle in the effort to pursue landmark preservation in New York. … The minute we sell out to developers is the minute New York becomes just another place to live.