Landmarks Showdown! History, Money, and Power Collide in Church Battle

by - April 19, 2010 at 2:08 pm -

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This Tuesday at 11 a.m., a City Council committee will consider whether to designate West Park Presbyterian Church on 86th Street as a landmark, and local activists on both sides are expected to pack the room. Westside Independent Writer Matthew Huisman took a look at the church’s history, and the stakes involved.

By Matthew Huisman
As the weekly Sunday service of West Park Presbyterian Church comes to a close, a collection plate is passed around to the 30 or so parishioners in attendance. The final notes of the hymn are sung in the basement-level room of the Church of St. Paul and St. Andrews and the congregation stuffs money and checks in the pan. The humble offerings go to help advance the church’s mission of providing help to the community through programs offered to the homeless and seniors. The congregation is hoping and praying that the City Council votes against designating their church a landmark.

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On the northeast corner of Amsterdam Avenue and 86th Street, the West Park Presbyterian Church sits empty, as it has for the past three years. In January, the Landmark Preservation Commission designated the church a landmark. The church’s senior pastor, Rev. Robert Brashear, and the New York Presbytery, the organization that oversees all the Presbyterian congregations in New York City, are both opposed to the designation. Conversely, the measure has been supported by Landmark West, an Upper West Side non-profit that helps preserve historic districts and buildings through landmark designation, and City Council Member Gale Brewer.

Should the City Council vote in favor of the landmark designation, the church would be required to restore parts of the church. Brashear said the expense of the forced renovations would doom the congregation and its care-giving mission.

west park2“Saving a building is not saving a church,” Brashear said. “We may be put in a position where the building might be sold to the highest bidder.”

On Sunday, home-made signs asking the council not to designate the church hung from the metal gates covering the entrances to the building. The words “Stop Gale Brewer’s Forced,” the beginning of a thought interrupted, are spray painted on the blue scaffold that wraps around the church.

Originally called Park Presbyterian, the church opened its doors in 1890 during a time when the Upper West Side was booming with development. In 1911, the church was renamed West Park Presbyterian to reflect the merging of two congregations. Throughout its existence, the church has been a champion of civil rights, advocating on behalf of equal rights for blacks in the 1960s and same-sex marriage today. The church was the first site of the West Side Food Pantry and one of the founding churches of the West Side Federation for Senior Housing, Inc.

In 1990, the Landmark Preservation Commission pushed for the creation of an Upper West Side Historic District. West Park Presbyterian was originally slated to be part of the district, but was excluded at the request of the church. Since then the congregation has fought to keep the church off the city’s landmark list.

“It took 20 years for the building to be designated,” said Kate Wood, Executive Director of Landmark West. “The community stands ready to help to make sure the building does not remain vacant. We don’t see the landmark designation as a way to prevent the demolition but a positive way to ensure the building has a future.”

Those in favor of the landmark designation and those against disagree as to how best to fix the church. Both sides are claiming that their way is best when it comes to fixing the church.

Brashear said that “false rumors” began to circulate that the congregation was going to demolish the church after a water main break forced the church to close and make repairs. The construction that followed to repair the church was misinterpreted as construction to tear it down, Brashear said. Until the designation is resolved, construction cannot move forward.

“The project should have been completed over a year ago. No project can move forward at this point,” Brashear said. “I would hope that if we could find the right partner with the right flexibility we could do something in the next 18 months.”

The preservation of the church has been a priority for Councilmember Gale Brewer since 2003. Brewer said she has proposed a host of options for the church to help offset the costs of the landmark designation.

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Gale Brewer

“The issue is that if it’s not landmarked it might be torn down,” Brewer said. “If we landmark it we can work with the ministry and with the pastor. We really do care about the building and the church.”

Brewer said she is skeptical of the church’s claims that it won’t tear down the church, offering options for a non-landmarked building on the property to help increase revenue.

“We are open to cooperation with anyone and everybody but there is no right to take our building away by default,” Brashear said. “At the end of the day, our capacity to carry out our mission is our duty and it needs to be respected.”

The City Council’s Subcommittee on Landmarks, Public Siting and Maritime Uses will meet to vote on the landmark application on Tuesday at 11 a.m. in the City Council chambers at City Hall. One other committee will also weigh in on the application before the full City Council eventually votes.

(Photos by Matthew Huisman. Gale Brewer photo by Avi)

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