On Tuesday, the Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) held its second hearing on the hardship application submitted by West-Park Presbyterian Church on the corner of West 86th Street and Amsterdam Avenue.
With over a year passed since the first hearing, if the application is approved, the church will be demolished to make way for a mixed-use high-rise apartment building by real estate company Alchemy Properties, which would pay the church $30 million for the property.
More than sixty people – including celebrities Mark Ruffalo, Common and Wendell Pierce – testified during the 5+ hour event, which included emotional moments from people on both sides of the issue.
Former LPC member Roberta Brandes Gratz spoke about her work leading the restoration of the Eldridge Street Synagogue in Chinatown. Built in 1887, Gratz recalled the building falling into decay in the mid-1980s. “Water was pouring through the roof. Pigeons were flying inside. There was a congregation of ten people. Stained glass windows were in shatters.” Gratz, now a journalist and author, said it took $20 million from 20,000 donors to get the space to become the thriving and beautiful museum it is today. She asserted that raising the funds for West-Park “will be a piece of cake” in comparison to the Eldridge Street Synagogue, which was in a crime-ridden neighborhood back then. “[West-Park] sits on a visible and highly accessible corner of a thriving intersection in a huge, well-heeled community ready to raise the money.”
Katherine Abrams, who lives on West 86th Street and is in favor of demolishing the church, emphasized the sidewalk shed which has surrounded it for more than twenty years. “Despite the shed, stone has fallen on the ground outside the shed continually” Abrams said, adding that before Saturday’s rally, “somebody came and power washed away the facing of the church that was on the sidewalk.” She then emphasized that it would be “a shame if the people on the Landmarks Preservation Commission had to regret deaths, either inside the church or on the sidewalk when it collapses.”
Mitch Shamrock, Treasurer of The Center at West Park, refuted Abrams’ claims, saying they were actually washing away bird droppings, not cement.
City Council Member Gale Brewer said that in her opinion, the architectural firm hired by The Center at West Park – Wiss, Janney, Elstner Associates (WJE) – is the only design firm which has conducted an up-close visual and personal inspection of the church facade using a boom lift. Brewer noted that WJE conducted an independent assessment of the church along with Slocum Construction Consulting for cost estimating. “And they concluded that the cost of repairs are a fraction of what has been represented by the applicant.” While Brewer did not cite a specific number, the church has estimated a total cost of around $50 million. The Center at West Park, on the other hand, has estimated the total cost at $20-25 million.
Council Member Brewer – who was the driving force in getting the church landmark status in 2010 – also stated that “The church’s insurance carrier has surveyed the church every year and repeatedly issued policies providing coverage and other independent confirmation that the building is structurally sound.”
Marsha Flowers, a member of the West-Park Presbyterian Church for thirty years, clapped back at the council member. “For twenty years, West-Park has tried to find a solution for a deteriorating building… In her 2010 press release after landmarking, [Brewer] stated that ‘with this building as a landmark, I will work to raise the necessary funds to restore the building.’… The building was landmarked [but] no funds have materialized.”
Reverend Stephen Phelps, who lives a few blocks away from the church, called out a claim made by Wendell Pierce, one of several stars in attendance at Saturday’s rally. “I heard actor Wendell Pierce on the news claiming that this appeal for a hardship waiver is just rich men manipulating city rags for profit; he couldn’t be more wrong. This hardship waiver is sought by a small congregation in order to exercise their first amendment right to worship freely. They are not rich, they have no tens of millions to restore the building, no manipulation here. The church is up against the wall, the wall is collapsing.”
Pierce returned to the Tuesday hearing, this time in prerecorded video form. “There’s no reason that after a decade on the Landmark Preservation list that it should be taken off to benefit a profitable deal for a developer. There are other places where he can make his profit without destroying sacred space.”
Mark Ruffalo joined the Zoom meeting to continue his fight to save the church from the wrecking ball. But before diving into his own remarks, the actor introduced a video prepared by Common, who also opposes the church’s demolition. “It has served our communities in so many ways, brought people together, brought people together in love and unity, and creativity,” said the rapper and actor. “And I really hope that we honor this place, that we recognize the value of it, and make sure that it stands because I plan to perform there. So many artists [are] planning to perform there and we can do so many good things to bring people together, and unify communities in ways that’s greater than we even fathom.”
Ruffalo jumped in once Common’s recording concluded. “This is about who has the money and who doesn’t. It’s about the people versus the corporations in this city, and what is happening to the culture, to the history, to what’s valuable about this city. Because we the people don’t have the resources that Ken Horne [President of Alchemy Properties] and the $4 billion his company has.”
At the end of the meeting, LPC Chair Sarah Carroll called the hardship application filed by the church “very technical,” adding that the LPC is going to take it very seriously as they consider all the information they’ve heard. Carroll also noted they will keep the record open for “another week or so, then we will begin the process of analyzing all of the information.”