In the world of New York Presbyterians, the decision last month by a city agency to designate an Upper West Side church a landmark landed with a thud. With the church facing a repair bill for its iconic red sandstone building at 86th Street and Amsterdam Avenue, a bill far greater than any available funds, the action was viewed by the congregation of the West-Park Presbyterian Church as an affront to its autonomy and a potential death knell, given its strained finances.
Church leaders argue that the decision, urged for years by the city’s major preservation groups and the local councilwoman, Gale Brewer, would hold the congregation hostage to the new landmark restrictions, precluding their plans to sell off a piece of the property to a developer to help fund a future existence.
So West-Park is fighting back. It’s making a last-ditch effort to convince the City Council to take the highly unusual action of overturning a designation by the Landmarks Preservation Commission. Enlisting the help of New York’s broader Presbyterian community, the church leadership has requested that pastors and their members lobby the Council to stop the designation.
On the Presbytery of New York City’s Web site is a set of talking points on the issue, including a less-than-friendly suggested draft letter a pastor could send to a council member: “If you and your fellow City Council members approve the LPC’s action, every church, synagogue, mosque, temple and religious institution across the city will not be safe from the actions of marauding preservationists,” the draft letter reads. “The LPC’s recommendation solely benefits a handful of neighborhood preservation groups who are not members of West-Park’s congregation. Brewer is mining the LPC’s action for her own personal political gain, calling it ‘a victory for the Westside.’” [A separate letter from West-Park to commissioners of the Presbytery is here].
In an email Tuesday, West-Park’s pastor, the Rev. Robert Brashear, said that “[t]he government has no right to take away the life of a church to save a building,” and that he “will be interested to see if council members are willing to look at the principle.”
Aspersions aside, the decision to designate the church is a rare one, garnering much attention in the preservation world given that it involves landmarking a notable religious institution over the objections of its owner. The LPC typically avoids landmark designations without the owner’s consent, and churches and synagogues around the city loath the concept of submitting to eternal restrictions on their properties, lest they be unable to sell off or change their buildings when finances tighten.
But West-Park has topped the wish list of preservationists for at least two decades, as they’ve sought to block any possible changes or demolition of the handsome, historic Romanesque Revival structure. The fears of preservationists were especially ignited in recent years as the cash-strapped congregation began tapping developers—first the Related Companies, then Richman Housing, in a $15 million deal—to knock down all or part of the structure and build an apartment tower in its place (with the proceeds going to the church). With a need for an estimated $5 million-plus in structural repairs, the money for which was to come from the development sale, the church is now closed, and the congregation is temporarily housed in a neighboring church.
All that is not to say that the push to overturn the LPC’s decision has much chance of success. The Presbytery is by no means the most politically powerful religious group in town, claiming a membership of just 17,000. Further, the Council, which must vote later this winter or spring, almost always defers to the local member on land-use decisions such as this, and Ms. Brewer has for years been a devoted proponent of landmarking the church.
“I don’t think we’re going to have a problem with it,” Ms. Brewer said, saying that thus far, her constituents have voiced far more support for the designation than opposition.
Then again, a Council vote upholding the landmarking may not end the issue. The LPC has a “hardship” process meant for charities and other groups that are under strain because of their expensive buildings. One of the possible end results of that process: demolition, which was last used by St. Vincent’s in Greenwich Village in its effort to build a new hospital on the site of a landmark Modernist building.