West-Park Church Won’t Be Bulldozed After It Withdraws Hardship Application

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The West-Park Presbyterian Church’s plan to demolish its 140-year-old Upper West Side structure and redevelop it into apartments has been put on hold.  

The church withdrew its hardship application with the Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC), which would allow the small congregation to demolish the protected church and build a residential tower, so it can turn its attention to settling a lawsuit to evict its nonprofit tenant from August 2022.

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West-Park, a 12-person congregation with no preacher at 165 West 86th Street, plans to revisit the hardship application and then sell the property to developer Alchemy Properties once the dust settles around the lawsuit with its tenant, Center at West Park.

“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 … LPC to demolish the existing building on the grounds of hardship,” a spokesperson for West-Park said in a statement. “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.”

The lawsuit began after the Center at West Park tried to exercise a five-year renewal option on the lease, but the congregation tried to reject the lease claiming that it did not have authorization from the Presbytery of New York and the government to lease the space to begin with, according to Michael Hiller, an attorney for the tenant told Commercial Observer.

In the original lease signed in 2017, the church claimed to have this authorization, making the lease valid through to 2028.

For a hardship application to be granted, the applicants are required to prove that the building will be replaced in a short period of time. That can’t happen if the church is bound by a lease. The LPC was set to vote on the application Tuesday.

“They entered into a long-term lease with my client, they had authorization for it, and they went to court claiming falsely that they didn’t have it. That’s the problem they have,” Hiller said. “You know how we win these cases? We win them when applicants withdraw. That’s how it happens.

“When they withdrew their application, they didn’t do it out of the kindness of their hearts,” Hiller added. “And they didn’t do it just because there’s a lawsuit. They did it because they obviously knew that the commission was going to deny their application because they could not keep the promise that the building would be demolished and replaced with reasonable promptness.”

The decision to withdraw the controversial application, which sparked opposition from politicians such as City Councilmember Gale Brewer as well as actors Mark Ruffalo and Matt Damon, follows conflicting assessments on the cost of repairs to the crumbling structure revealed during an Oct. 31 LPC hearing.

While one report showed that the building required up to $50 million in repairs — a figure the congregation has floated for years — another assessment showed that the building could be made completely safe with only a $1.7 million investment.

“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,” the West-Park spokesperson said.

The church has been landmarked since 2010 and has had scaffolding around it for at least 20 years. Preservationists in the neighborhood have called the congregation’s neglect of the building an intentional effort to sell off the property and its development rights to its business partner in the bid for redevelopment, Alchemy Properties.

The Center at West Park said it was able to raise $1.43 million for the building and completed $270,000 in renovations, according to a spokesperson for the nonprofit. It has also has a plan to remove the sidewalk shed.

Mark Hallum can be reached at mhallum@commercialobserver.com.