West Park Presbyterian Church Responds to Public Testimony

The West Park Presbyterian Church. Image Credit: NYC LPC.

Following Landmarks’ firsthand visit to the site, West Park was given an additional opportunity to speak in support of their hardship application. On July 19, 2022, the Landmarks Preservation Commission held a public meeting to question the West Park Presbyterian Church about their hardship application. The building is designed in the Romanesque Revival style and located at 165 West 86th Street in Manhattan.

This meeting was the first time Landmarks discussed West Park’s hardship application to demolish the church since a public hearing on June 14. While elected officials and community members spoke in strong opposition to the demolition, representatives from the church, Presbytery, and potential developer Alchemy Properties argued that the building is in disrepair. For CityLand’s detailed coverage of the June 14 public hearing, click here.

Landmarks Chair Sarah Carroll began the public meeting by emphasizing that the Commission “will not be taking a final action today or in the immediate future.” Carroll explained that following the June 14 hearing, Landmarks embarked on a “robust and methodical process” of reviewing documents. Eight Commissioners, including Carroll herself, also visited the church to study the building’s condition firsthand.

After the meeting was called to order, attorney Valerie Campbell spoke on behalf of the West Park Administrative Commission, the organization responsible for the church’s sales contract with Alchemy Properties. Campbell explained that the church submitted a letter responding to public testimony, bolstered by supplemental materials from architects, Appraisers & Planners, and the church itself.

Campbell first addressed the contention that Landmarks should apply the judicial test for hardship rather than the statutory test. Landmarks has applied the judicial test for nonprofits in the past, which considers relevant factors like whether the building can be used for its intended purpose. Here, because West Park wishes to sell, Campbell stated the statutory test is “completely appropriate”. However, the line of questioning Landmarks has previously applied with the judicial test remains relevant and indicates West Park is enduring hardship. Additionally, Campbell argued the church has a Constitutional right to sell their building at market value.

Roger Leaf, Chair of the West Park Administrative Commission, then responded to public testimony about the “reasonable return” statutory requirement. Members of the public argued on June 14 that the appropriate methodology was not used to calculate West Park’s finances, meaning they could still receive a reasonable return and repair the building. Leaf explained that West Park’s submissions were completed “in strict compliance with the Landmarks Law” and relevant precedent. Appraisers & Planners submitted two responses to these accusations: one disproving the opposition’s “flawed financial analysis” and another showing that applying a historical tax credit to the church would still fail to generate a reasonable return. Documents were also submitted to better explain construction costs. Leaf emphasized the financial difficulty in resolving the church’s outstanding Department of Buildings violations, which also prove that the building is unsuitable for its intended church use.

Engineer Muhammed Rahal of Severud Associates, Rick Lefever, the president of FacadeMD, and Adam Wald, Executive VP of Appraisers and Planners, rounded out the church’s response. Rahal shared that the north and south walls of the building are leaning 8 inches, “which in our opinion is an excessive amount”. While historical masonry should handle 250 PSI or less of pressure, these walls currently handle 350 PSI. Rahal stated that “the excess lean is unacceptable” and would require extensive repair, namely steel girts bolted to both walls.

Lefever added that visually, the exterior sandstone damage appears far less serious than it is. FacadeMD performed a physical sounding exam to investigate, where stone is hit by a rubber mallet. 50% of reachable sandstone returned a dull or hollow sound, indicating deterioration. However, reaching much of the stone would be unsafe without additional scaffolding. Lefever also noted that FacadeMD has gotten close range looks at the building’s exterior, and viewing the sandstone from a distance does not reveal the extent of the damage.

Wald raised two main points in closing out West Park’s response, a report submitted by David Finehirsch and the historical tax credit argument. The Finehirsch report was submitted in conjunction with Hiller PC, a law firm representing arts group and current church tenant Center at West Park. Wald argued that Finehirsch’s calculations were incorrect, and that proposed alternatives like condos and retail space wouldn’t feasibly create a reasonable return. Wald also pointed out that the church is only eligible for a federal historical tax credit, which would be expensive to file, and developers would require some of those funds. A multiple dwelling in the current building would generate a small return, but Wald argued that developers would be unwilling to convert the building into housing.

The public meeting then shifted to a Q&A session, primarily focusing on the conditions of the building. Commissioners Anne Halford-Smith and Michael Devonshire pressed church representatives on what more could be done to assess the building’s condition aside from the partially completed physical sounding tests. While Devonshire considered a stone-by-stone analysis to be standard practice, Lefever reiterated that this would be unsafe without added protections. Chair Carroll and Commissioner Michael Goldblum also emphasized the potential use of alternative materials, pointing out that West Park’s repair estimates were calculated based on higher-end products.

Speakers also shared that the Center for West Park’s lease ends on December 31, 2022, and the Church has no intention of renewing. Landmarks’ General Counsel Mark Silberman disclosed that according to a letter from Michael Hiller of Hiller PC, the Center at West Park wants to renew the lease for five more years. However, Leaf argued it would violate NYS law to renew without the Church’s consent.

Goldblum then inquired about the possibility of renting the building out, emphasizing an offer currently on the table and disagreeing with Leaf’s argument that given the building’s condition and landmark status, it’s hard to find buyers. Campbell chimed in that since West Park satisfies the statutory test, they’re not required to take a low offer and sell.

Commissioner Adi Shamir-Baron asked about adaptive reuse, and Dan Kaplan of FX Collaborations displayed two possible proposals. The first would add four slabs in alignment with existing windows to create apartments, while the second would keep the sanctuary intact and demolish the parish house to build new developments. Kaplan reiterated West Park’s belief that both of these possibilities would be ineffective and unusable. Alchemy Properties President Kenneth Horn added that his company has been involved with this project for a year and a half, and took ample care to try and preserve the church before settling on current development plans.

The proceedings ended with a final question about prior negotiations that fell through. Leaf shared that while he was not present for these conversations, it was communicated by the congregation that the building’s landmark status hindered them from successfully selling.

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. No additional action will be taken until after this meeting.

By: Cassidy Strong (Cassidy is a CityLaw intern and a New York Law School student, Class of 2024.)

LPC: West Park Presbyterian Church, 165 West 86th Street, Manhattan (LP- 22-09135) (July 19, 2022)



3 thoughts on “West Park Presbyterian Church Responds to Public Testimony

  1. I enjoy City Land’s work; however, why not share multiple voices rather than simply excerpts that advance the developer’s agenda?

    • Hello,

      Thank you for your comment. The purpose of this article was to cover the July 19th public meeting, which was an opportunity for the applicant to respond to comments given at the previous June 14th public hearing and answer further questions from LPC following the commission’s visit to the site. As this was a public meeting and not a public hearing, public testimony was not offered on July 19th. Our prior coverage from June 14th, which is linked in this article, discusses the contents of the application and testimony from both supporters and opponents of the application. We always welcome additional comments and public perspective and are open to guest commentary submissions.


      Veronica Rose

  2. Landmarks is a scam designed to give controlling interests to NIMBYs.

    Everyone agrees we are in a “housing crisis” in which the growth of demand has far out paced that of supply. Thus, the only way to solve it is to build more housing, and LPC does nothing that put the brakes on that process and perpetuates the problem.

    Should there be an architectural design review process, sure, but simply saying a building has worth because it is old is a defeatist attitude from the get go.

    At the end of the day this is private property. If there is so much support for preservation, let the preservationists put their money where their mouths are and buy the property, pay the taxes, and the ridiculous amount of money that is required to maintain these old buildings.

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