West Park church designated

Opponents argued designation would prevent congregation from restoring the deteriorating building. On May 12, 2010, the City Council approved Landmarks’ designation of the West Park Presbyterian Church at 165 West 86th Street in Manhattan. The red sandstone-clad building is considered one of the City’s best examples of Romanesque Revival-style religious structures. Landmarks unanimously designated the building in January 2010 despite opposition from West Park leaders and its congregation, who claimed that designation would prevent the congregation from repairing the deteriorating and now-vacant structure. West Park had partnered with a private developer to build a residential tower on a portion of the site, but the deal fell through after Landmarks calendared the building. 7 CityLand 10 (Feb. 15, 2010).

At the Council’s Landmarks, Public Siting & Maritime Uses Subcommittee public hearing on April 20, preservationists spoke in support of designation, while members of the West Park congregation and representatives from other local houses of worship opposed the action. Landmark West’s Kate Wood said the organization looked forward to participating in the adaptive reuse of the church into a productive and sustainable asset for the City.

Landmarks counsel Mark Silberman testified that because of West Park’s prior development plans, Landmarks believed that any building alterations should be done under its review. Silberman said Landmarks had a long history of working with property owners to alter or renovate landmarked buildings, and he explained that if Landmarks deemed proposed alterations inappropriate, property owners could apply for a hardship review.

Council Member Daniel J. Halloran noted that the church opposed designation and asked Silberman about the constitutionality of landmarking a religious institution. Silberman explained that owner opposition could not veto a landmark designation and pointed out that New York courts have established that the City’s landmarks law does not interfere with First Amendment rights. Council Member Gale Brewer, whose district includes the church, supported the designation. Brewer said landmarking the building would be the most effective strategy to raise the funds needed to preserve the building and allow the congregation to return to the church.

West Park’s Reverend Robert Brashear asked the Council to oppose the “forced landmarking.” Reverend Brashear provided details about the development partnership that would have allowed the congregation to repair the main sanctuary, noting that the development proposal would have preserved 85 percent of the building’s visible exterior and allowed the congregation to

remain on the site. He said the purpose of the landmark process should not be to endanger the church in order to preserve the building. The hearing was closed without a vote.

When the Subcommittee reconvened on May 12, it unanimously approved the designation. Explaining his vote, Council Member Halloran indicated that he initially opposed designation, but he changed his position based on Council Member Brewer’s outreach efforts and commitments to work with the community and West Park to restore the building and uphold the congregation’s mission.

The full Council approved the designation with only Council Members Vincent Ignizio and Peter Koo opposing. Ignizio argued that property rights should “supersede the will of the government in terms of landmarking.”

Council: West Park Presbyterian Church (May 12, 2010).

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