NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission Holds Hearing on the Demolition of West Park Presbyterian Church on the Upper West Side

 

 

 

West Park Presbyterian Church (WPPC), 165 West 86th Street, NYC. Image courtesy NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission 

Today, the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission held a hearing on an application to demolish the individual landmarked West-Park Presbyterian Church, located at 541 Amsterdam Avenue in NYC, on the grounds of financial hardship. Speakers lined up on Zoom, on all sides of the issue, with the meeting lasting more than four-hours. Below is a little background and a thumbnail sketch of today’s meeting. Decision will follow in one month.

Receiving an individual landmark in 2010, the church dates back to its original chapel, built in 1883-85, with the current church and facade West 86th Street built in 1889-90.

The original chapel on the eastern end of the site on 86th Street in 1883 was designed by Leopold Eidlitz. It was completed in 1885; In 1889 Henry Kilburn was commissioned to design a large new church and to re-design Eidlitz’s facade, creating a unified Romanesque Rivival-style church complex. Images via Alchemy Properties

The congregation, which was founded in 1852 at 74th Street and West End Avenue, had an active congregation with over 200 members in the 1980s. However today, the congregants number approximately 12 ~ and they have not had a full-time pastor since 2017.

The church has a rich history, having supported the anti-war movements in the 70s, and a beacon to the LGBTQ community during the AIDS crisis in the 80s. Now, in order to pay its bills and keep the lights on, the church relies on the Presbytery of New York to cover operating expenses and make emergency repairs.

With deteriorating conditions mounting, the current congregation has run out of financial resources, and has asked to have its individual landmark status revoked in order to sell the property to a developer (Alchemy Properties, with a purchase and sale agreement currently in place). This would avoid the $50 million restoration ~ and give the church/congregation a new 10,000 square-foot worship space in a new apartment tower. In addition, the church would receive $8.8 million to furnish the new parish.

After decades of exposure to the elements, the building’s soft red sandstone facade has become severely degraded. The building has been surrounded by a sidewalk shed for more than 20 years. Image from NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission meeting, June 14, 2022. Image via Alchemy Properties

It is interesting to note that shortly before its landmarking in 2010, the building was closed, with no heat or running water. It reopened after a capital campaign raised funds for a new boiler, and Landmarks Conservancy provided funds to repair the roof. However, in all this time, only $35,000 was raised for repairs.

The interior is not in compliance with current fire code, life safety and ADA accessibility requirements. There are currently 60 open DOB violations and 5 OATH/ECB violations on the building. Image via Alchemy Properties.

The non-profit group, The Center at West Park, was created in 2017 for the purpose of raising funds. However, they produced almost no funding for the major repairs, and the non-profit was paying way below market rate rent for space inside the space ($2,400 per month). The Center is opposed to demolition.

Last month, members of Manhattan Community Board 7 voted to reject a bid to tear down the historic building.

Image courtesy NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission

As reported to NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission today:

  • Once vibrant congregation has shrunk from over 200 members in the 1980’s to approximately a dozen today.
  • It has not had a full-time pastor since 2017.
  • Since 2013, the Church spent over $1 million to maintain the building, expending all ofits financial resources. Most of the money came from the sale of the Church’s manse. The Church has expended all of its financial resources to maintain the building, and is currently relying on the loans from the Presbytery of New York City to cover operating expenses and repair costs.
  • So far in 2022, the Church has spent about $70,000 to address urgent repairs mandated by DOB.
  • No other house of worship has expressed interest in acquiring the building and taking on the responsibility for restoration and repair.

In addition:

The Building

  • Shortly before landmarking, the building was closed, with no heat or running water. It only reopened after a capital campaign to raise funds for a new boiler.
  • In 2011, a blue-ribbon panel of restoration experts estimated that it would cost $14.6 million ($18.2 million in 2022 dollars) to restore the building’s façade.
  • Since 1993 the Church has paid over $45,000 in DOB building fines and penalties for elevator, boiler, and façade violations. There are currently 60 open DOB violations and five OATH/ECB violations on the building.
  • Sidewalk shed, installed long before landmarking, is still in place, and will be for the foreseeable future.
  • Church was closed from November 2021 to February 2022 for safety concerns. The sanctuary balcony has been closed by City inspectors.
  • In the last four months, the Church has received three violations from DOB relating to the condition of the church façade, which will require millions of dollars to cure.

A full report on the condition of the existing building can be found Here.

The NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission meeting on June 14, 2022 was an opportunity for interested parties to speak ~ and they did for more than four hours.

The team brought in to evaluate the building is listed below, along with major preservation projects they have worked on.

Several illustrations were suggested which are part of an overview economic analyses to determine whether a reasonable return can be achieved following a renovation and restoration of the property.

A Community facility and commercial use scenario (Base Scenario) in which the deficiencies of the existing structure are cured and renovated for community facility use, with a Net Usable Area of 18,353 square-feet in a gross building area of 34,688 square-feet.

Infill Community Facility and Commercial Use Scenario (Infill Scenario) in which interior square footage is maximized through a 3,647 + or – square-foot infill of the auditorium, in order to create total gross building area of nearly 28,335 +- square-feet and a net usable area of 22,014 +- square-feet.

And Residential Multi-Family Conversion Scenario (Multi-Family Scenario) in which the interior square-footage is maximized through infill construction and converted for residential use. Both structural and interior work is required to create a total of 34,517 +- square-feet of gross building area and 20 apartments ranging from studios to 3-bedroom units with a total residential rentable area of 20,613 +- square-feet. (I must mention here that the fact that no affordable units did not go unnoticed by Manhattan Borough President, Gale Brewer.

Below are just a few of the illustrations, including what a new building might look like from both Amsterdam Avenue and West 86th Street, and what they might contain.

Illustration of the two buildings, side-by-side, the Sanctuary and the Parish House ~ several illustrations were presented. This shows the Parish House demolished and new residential building constructed in its place, cantilevered over the sanctuary. Image via Alchemy Properties.

 

Illustration of new building from Amsterdam Avenue, with entrance to WPPC on the left and retail space on the right. Image via Alchemy Properties.

 

Illustration of new building with a view on West 86th Street. Image via Alchemy Properties.

 

Illustration of new building on the corner of Amsterdam Avenue and West 86th Street. Image via Alchemy Properties.

 

illustration of what an assembly space could look like. Image via Alchemy Properties.

 

Illustration of what auditorium and theater space would look like. Image via Alchemy Properties.

 

Illustration of ground level. Image via Alchemy Properties.

 

Illustration of preliminary massing study for new building on the site. Image via Alchemy Properties.

As  for restoration and rehabilitation, below are a list of costs.

There are strong feelings on all sides of this issue ~ considering if an individual landmark should be revoked for hardship ~ Is this a hardship ~ Is the building really beyond saving ~ Can financing really materialize if they move forward to preserve the building.

The engineering/architectural team, who had no feeling either way when they entered this project, made it clear that they struggled to find ways to readapt, rather than demolish. They looked at partial demolition (just the Parish House) and renovation of the sanctuary, but found this costly and ineffective. In the end, they came to the conclusion that the only path forward was demolition due to the extent of the corrosion curve of the sandstone.

Preservationists, however, reminded the panel that the deterioration for the most part is external – not internal. And all efforts should be made to preserve the landmarked building, citing the creative way Eldridge Street Sanctuary and Museum preserved its historic building.

Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer spoke eloquently for the preservation of the building, citing that the church did not meet the burden of hardship ~ and she noted that in the illustration for a new building, there were no plans for affordable housing!

This past three-years of vacancy created accelerated roof leaks and damage, since the current congregation of approximately a dozen people, meet virtually. In response to the churches claim that after landmarking, the necessary money was not forthcoming, it was mentioned that the church (who did not want to be landmarked to begin with) wouldn’t consent to be listed on the National Register of Historic Places, which would have opened a door for them to receive various grants.

New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission listened patiently to all sides, and indicated that they will move forward with their decision in a thoughtful and methodical way – and a decision will be made in one-month. We will stay tuned.

Other Churches in the news ~ St. Martin’s Episcopal Church in Harlem and the First Spanish United Methodist Church, also known as The People’s Church, in El Barrio.

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