The Upper West Side is one of the most prestigious neighborhoods in New York, considered by many to be the cultural and intellectual center of Manhattan, including world-renowned universities (Columbia, Barnard College), museums (Natural History Museum). Mention the Lincoln Center campus.
On the upper east side is a 19th-century Romanesque monumental church, a symbol of decades of conflict between locals and big business. The heated and emotional debate was revived after it was revealed that a real estate development company would build luxury apartments at the West Park location, to which local residents began protesting violently. But here the roles are reversed, the little people in the neighborhood are actually millionaire stars, and the real estate company works with the poor people’s council who have no money to renovate the dilapidated building.The church’s complicated and long history includes many conflicting engineering estimates, bad faith on both sides, and lengthy litigation. The case also sheds light on how churches facing declining membership are trying to reinvent themselves and gain money and members.
Who owns the city?
“People and institutions are at odds in this town,” said actor Mark Ruffalo, star of the Marvel movies, who lives next door to the church. According to him, the church, which has stood since the 1880s at the corner of Amsterdam Avenue and Niugati 86th Street, should not be demolished. Apart from Ruffalo, actor Wendell Pierce, comedian Amy Schumer and Lonnie Rashid Lynn aka Common also entered the fray, giving the case an unusual twist.
The Presbytery of New York formed the West Park Management Committee in 2020 to help the church manage the building and find a buyer. Committee chairman Roger Leaf said the dozen-member council wants to stop the financial hemorrhaging and use the proceeds from property sales for better causes, including helping those in need across the city. “It’s ironic that this church’s wealthy neighbors who own multi-million dollar homes call themselves the little people,” Leaf said. The New York Timesto do
All parties agree on the historic and architectural importance of the church. The Historic Preservation Commission praised the deep color of its red sandstone envelope and its monumentality, making it one of the most significant buildings in the Upper West Side, according to the commission. The West Park community was known as an early ally of the anti-war movement and the LGBTQ community in the 1970s and 1980s.
At the same time, the church became one of the focal points of the city’s real estate battles. In the 1980s, West Park fought historic preservation regulations that restricted how the community could use its property. The church has been looking for partners to renovate and remodel the building since 2001, said Marsha Flowers, senior member of West Park.
In 2010, it was almost possible to reach an agreement with a company that would build apartments on the plot, but conservationists succeeded in declaring the building a city monument. This classification prohibits owners from making major or minor changes that alter the appearance of the building.
According to Leaf, the condition of the building is getting worse every year. According to estimates, the renovation will cost a total of $50 million, of which $14 million will restore the crumbling facade alone.
In June of last year, the church submitted a new application to the Historic Preservation Commission, essentially saying that the building’s poor condition and historic status would be a hardship for the church, essentially making it impossible to maintain the building. Permission was sought from the authority to alter the building. However, the commission has only granted such requests 13 times since it was created in the 1960s, suggesting the odds are in favor of conservationists.
Still, Leaf remains optimistic. If the application is approved, he told the Times, a deal would be signed with Alchemy Partners, which would pay the church more than $30 million to demolish the building and build luxury apartments. From this, the council will create food pantries, free kitchens, education centers, homeless shelters and similar charitable facilities.Monument defenders deny the church’s predicament, saying the congregation is exaggerating matters. In addition, they are paid for by the West Park Center, a non-profit organization that hosts performing arts and other events at the church. The church in West Park moved online during the pandemic, with Lighthouse Chapel holding weekly services there. Some accuse the church of deliberately allowing the building to fall into disrepair.
“If the commission accepts this request, it will serve as an example to all owners of historic properties in New York of how their building can be demolished,” said attorney Michael Hiller. Ruffalo said in an interview that the neighborhood breathed a sigh of relief when the church was designated a monument. He said he regularly attends events there and was already considering organizing his own event when he heard about the church’s request a few weeks ago.
“This is what I do,” he said. “I’m using my fame and my platforms to stand up for people who are being abused by a system that doesn’t give them a voice, doesn’t let them be heard.” However, he rejected the idea that the case was an example of the influence and power of wealthy New Yorkers.
The Ruffalos also started fundraising, a community fundraising group that has already raised $16,000 toward a $250,000 goal. “Without breaks like this, I wouldn’t have become an actor,” Ruffalo said. “Without these places, there would be no theater in New York.” Although donors are willing to pay the required amount to remove the difficulties, detailed information about such concessions is not available, the church said. This is where the case currently stands, and it is not yet clear what the next step will be regarding the church’s claim. (The New York Times)