David has beaten Goliath. A small, not-for-profit organization has defeated – at least temporarily – one of the city’s billion-dollar developers. For now, the historic and landmarked West-Park Presbyterian Church is saved and along with it, the performing arts group, The Center at West Park, and the weekly worship space of the Lighthouse Chapel.
In a time when the old-school charm of the city’s landmarked architecture is regularly replaced by stodgy formations sanctioned by what seems like a rubber stamp from the Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC), victories like this – those maintaining the character of eras gone by and seminal wins for smaller or community arts organizations – appear hard to come by. That is why, perhaps, this victory has brought such impassioned joy to those who fought for it and for those who supported it.
The battle between the congregation and its tenant has been well documented. In sum, the congregation of twelve claimed that maintenance of the church was not economically feasible and asked the LPC to essentially reverse its landmark designation, thus allowing a sale of the property to developer Alchemy Properties for demolition to make way for a luxury high-rise. However, its tenant – The Center at West Park (CWP) – sought to preserve the Gilded Age building and argued that it would be able to financially sustain the space.
The church withdrew its application to the LPC on January 5 but vowed to renew the fight once it resolved “its lawsuit against a tenant about a lease dispute.” Exactly why the religious group paused its landmark battle to pursue separate litigation is unclear. However, for the time being, the arts have a real opportunity to thrive in the neighborhood if CWP can continue its work, according to Debby Hirshman, CWP’s executive director. She confirmed to ILTUWS how the Center plans to make that happen.
“We want to partner with the congregation and would love nothing more than to do it together to preserve this gem of a landmark, grow community arts and programs, and continue our commitment to social responsibilities while ensuring [the building] remains a sacred place of worship.”
Hirshman described the win against the wrecking ball as a win for Broadway and the wider entertainment industry, both of which she believes would detrimentally suffer if CWP and similar organizations through the city were exiled and obliterated. “Incubator spaces like West Park are spaces for workshops to test ideas, for creativity to grow, for emerging artists to have an accessible, affordable and inclusive home, and for Broadway to ultimately be Broadway. You have to ask why did the celebrities involved take on this cause with so much gusto. It’s because they all began in similar community theaters.”
But can CWP afford to stay? Hirshman believes it can, and was quick to clarify that the building is not in a grave state of disrepair as some prior reports have claimed. “An independent engineer for the LPC confirmed in October 2023 that the repair costs were exaggerated; $1.7 million enables removal of the shed and another $9 million, at most, is needed for all improvements with costs being phased out over time.”
A key factor to CWP’s ongoing success is the ability to use the space for its programs and events. Hirshman pointed out that 2023 was really the first year post-COVID where the Center could really open its doors for programs, concerts, and other performance-based uses.
CWP raised $1.43 million in 2023. Over $300,000 of that was generated in just two days due to the Center’s November 2023 production of This is Our Youth, a play written by Academy Award Winning Screenwriter and Director Kenneth Lonergan and starring Mark Ruffalo, Matt Damon, and Missy Yager.
Future programs include a commitment from Pulitzer, Tony, and Emmy award-winning playwright and screenwriter Tony Kushner (Angels in America, West Side Story) to do a stage reading as part of CWP’s renowned American Playwrights Showcase – as well as works involving Pulitzer Prize winning and MacArthur Genius Award recipient Suzan-Lori Parks (Topdog/Underdog, In the Blood) and writer and actor Stephen Adly Guirgis (The Get Down, Birdman). Actor John Leguizamo (Super Mario Bros, Summer of Sam) will also be teaming up with CWP.
A film center is anticipated and will offer an affordable alternative to traditional movie theaters. The 375-seat space will also host a Battle of the Bands for high school-aged children in the spring and is now home to the Inclusion Concert, a musical showcase of neurotypical and neuroatypical middle and high school aged-children and young adults celebrating diversity, inclusion, and ability that previously seen at 54 Below.
As for the sidewalk shed – a point of displeasure for many members of the public on both sides of the landmark application – it is slated to be removed this year. A committee is in place to map out its removal and it will be meeting next week to start the planning. The removal is expected to cost $1.7 million, based on estimates by LPC’s independent engineer.
News of the church’s decision to sheath its LPC request brought a lot of relief and happiness to Michael Hiller, an attorney for CWP.
“It’s hard to sufficiently express the joy I experienced from this emotional win. The owner of the building had allowed it to fall into some disrepair and then ran to the LPC, alleging hardship, but claimed the condition was much worse than it actually was. It’s hard to even conceive of the impact to the city’s landmarks if the LPC had granted the application. Every other owner of a landmark-protected property would likely have followed the same roadmap, and before we knew it, we could conceivably have lost a third of our landmark-protected properties. That makes this, for me, among the most significant victories in 30 years of doing this work.”
When asked why he thinks the congregation changed course (at least temporarily), he opined that the reason lies within the law that governs landmarks. Specifically, the church and the site’s ultimate developer would need to demonstrate that any replacement would be completed with reasonable promptness. “The developer did not make that showing – not even close.”
Hiller believes that complicating matters further for the congregation is the regulatory requirement that includes a showing that the current structure cannot be used as intended or for profit. Yet, the church is currently used as a religious and community facility on a daily basis, which rendered the congregation’s hardship argument that much weaker, according to Hiller.
ILTUWS asked Hiller to explain how the church’s lawsuit against CWP and the now-defunct LPC application impact one another, and he offered a simple “they don’t.” Hiller stated that “the lawsuit has been pending since August 2022. If the pendency of the lawsuit had truly created a problem with the application, why did the developer wait until January 2024 to withdraw it?”
Hiller did offer a lamentable statement about Friday’s victory on CWP’s behalf: “Every win is temporary. Every loss is permanent. So, we will keep fighting and, if necessary, we’ll win this one again and again.”
ILTUWS reached out to West-Park Presbyterian Church for comment and the congregation emailed the following:
Our congregation remains wholly committed to a future for the West Park Presbyterian Church that will be made possible by the sale of property and a permit from the Landmark Preservation Commission (LPC) to demolish the existing building on the grounds of hardship. However, we are withdrawing our application before the LPC as we await resolution in the unrelated litigation concerning the expired lease of the building’s tenant.We have faith that the court will decide in the congregation’s favor as it evaluates the lease litigation, and we plan to resubmit our application to the LPC when the litigation is resolved so that we can finally invest in the modern, accessible worship and community space that the Upper West Side deserves and further support our mission in our neighborhood and across New York City. We are confident that the hardship analysis presented in the application is accurate, as affirmed by independent reviews, meets the requirements of the Landmarks Law, and will ultimately be approved by the Commission.
We want to thank those who have spoken up in support of our congregation’s efforts to restore our church and renew our mission in service to our community. Our decision in 2022 to pursue the sale of our spiritual home for over 150 years, where our members made history as advocates for social justice and global peace, was not made lightly. After more than two decades of trying to keep up with repairs and waiting for unfulfilled promises of fundraising to come through, we ran out of time and money and must explore other options for our congregation’s future.
A follow-up question to the congregation regarding the relationship between the application’s withdrawal and separate tenant lawsuit has not been responded to as of writing.