West Park Church Hearing Raucous But Constructive

by - April 20, 2010 at 9:04 pm -

westpark2By Elizabeth Wu

More than 60 speakers testified before the City Council’s Subcommittee on Landmarks, Public Siting and Maritime Uses Tuesday morning about the landmark designation of West Park Presbyterian Church at 86th Street and Amsterdam Avenue, in what many felt was the first constructive public discussion since the landmark debate began in 2003.

Subcommittee chairman Brad Lander presided over the meeting, which will be the last public hearing before the issue goes before the City Council pending the vote of the subcommittee on May 5.

The meeting illuminated many fundamental and ideological differences between preservation groups, who view the building as an irreplaceable neighborhood landmark, and the church and related religious communities, who fear the negative repercussions the designation will have on their pursuit of religious mission. (see our story on the build-up to the hearing here.)

“The impact of designation of our building as a landmark, regardless of how satisfying, will most likely be to destroy the church and not even save the building,” testified West Park’s Reverend Dr. Robert L. Brashear as parishioners and supporters held up pieces of paper emblazoned with the message, “YES Religious Freedom, NO Forced Landmarking.”

Prompted by committee members to detail previous development plans, Brasher outlined the “Richmond plan” which was a compromise that would have preserved 85 percent of the church’s exterior, including the entire sanctuary and tower, while providing for the construction of a 20-story tower to help the church generate much-needed income.

The plan was rejected by preservation groups such as Friends of West Park and Landmark West! who favor wholesale preservation. Instead, preservationists, including Councilwoman Gale Brewer, believe both the church’s mission and building can be fully preserved by pursuing plans for adaptive re-use such as sharing the property with other organizations like schools or museums.

“Landmarking promises more solutions than obstacles,” testified Kate Wood, president of Landmark West! “The community is eager to support adaptive re-use,” she said as she presented the committee with a petition of over a thousand names supporting designation.

Throughout the meeting, committee members asked pointed questions about the economic viability of landmarking the church, possible sources for funding, and the constitutionality of landmarking a church against its will, which suggested it may entertain alternative options.

After the meeting, Rev. Brashear expressed some misgivings about what he perceived as misrepresentations of the goal of the church but was pleased with the open public discourse.

“This is really the first time our story’s been told,” he said.

Councilwoman Brewer also felt the hearing was successful and provided “good open discussion which we haven’t had before.”

Brewer_Graffiti

(The battle over the church’s future took another strange twist this weekend, when a church employee was arrested for painting graffiti on a construction scaffolding urging people to “Stop Gale Brewer’s Forced Landmarking”. The church employee, Diego Hugo Meneses, was stopped before he got to write the word “Landmarking.”  “I will not call it graffiti,” Meneses told DNAinfo. “I will call it a way to express my opinion.” Church leaders, who had been passing out flyers opposing the designation, did not press charges, DNAinfo reported)

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