The future of West-Park Presbyterian Church of New York City remains uncertain. While the Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) continues to consider preserving the church’s landmark status, the building’s owner has filed a lawsuit to evict its non-profit tenant.
Before the suit was filed on August 15, the latest chapter in the preserve-or-demolish debate took place on July 19 when the LPC held its second hearing on the matter. Both public hearings followed Community Board 7’s vote to maintain the structure’s landmark status, and the preservation committee’s vote to keep the church intact.
The landlord in this battle is West-Park Presbyterian Church, a religious corporation consisting of the church’s congregation, 12 strong as of April 2022. The group supports the demolition under the pretense that the sheer volume of disrepair makes the financial future of the church unsustainable.
Zachary Tomlinson has a different take. He is the Artistic Director for Center at West Park (The Center), the defendant tenant facing eviction. Tomlinson told ILTUWS in April that the financial deficit existed at the time of the initial lease and that The Center was created because of it. The partnership between the parties was intended to be long-term, according to Tomlinson, one that would raise money over time to restore the building.
West Park Presbyterian Church’s complaint concedes the latter. But, according to the complaint, the church believes The Center failed to uphold its obligation under its below-market rent lease. Specifically, West Park alleges that The Center failed “to raise funds towards restoration and take steps towards restoring the Premises.” It further claimed that the current lease is null and void because The Center did not obtain a prior approval mandated under the New York Religious Corporations Law.
The Center refuted these claims in an emailed press release from August 18:
“Since 2017, the Center has occupied the Church pursuant to a five-year Lease that expires on December 31 of this year, with a five-year renewal option that permits the Center to unilaterally extend the Lease to December 31, 2027. When questioned during the July 19th public meeting on this issue, Roger Leaf, on behalf of the Church’s approximately 10 parishioners, suggested that an additional consent from the small congregation for the extension was required under the Lease.However, Michael S. Hiller, an attorney specializing in landmark preservation, and who represents the Center, responded that Mr. Leaf’s assertion to the Commission was false. Mr. Hiller has confirmed that “the Lease expressly grants the Center the unilateral right to extend the lease term for five years, and further contains an express representation by the congregation that all required authorizations for the Lease, including the extension, were obtained prior to its execution.” As explained by Hiller, “the lawsuit, while couched in bogus allegations that the Center is supposedly in breach, is actually just a subterfuge by the congregation to avoid the promises and representations it made, and to reap an economic windfall at the expense of a treasured landmark and the public it has been designated to serve. And worse, the congregation, in its lawsuit, is seeking to deceive the Court, just as Mr. Leaf attempted to mislead the Commission.”
If the West Park congregation’s application to effectively rid the building of its landmark status is granted, the property is expected to be sold to developer Alchemy Properties for $33 million, which would convert the church into a market-rate residential high rise with a 10,000 square foot space for a church, community activities and arts programs.
Meanwhile, the LPC does not have the matter scheduled for any future discussions at this time. “Landmarks has enlisted their engineering consultant Donald Friedman, who was present at the site visit, to further analyze the issue. Landmarks is also engaging an outside expert, and will hold another public meeting after Labor Day for both experts to present their findings.”