Failing church turns to developer for salvation, but Brewer objects

Condo project would end saga, include new worship space

Gale A. Brewer and the West Park Presbyterian Church at 165 West 86th Street (Getty Images, Google Maps, iStock)
Gale A. Brewer and the West Park Presbyterian Church at 165 West 86th Street (Getty Images, Google Maps, iStock)

The West-Park Presyterian Church at West 86th Street and Amsterdam Avenue is in bad shape, both physically and spiritually.

One of the city’s longest-standing sidewalk sheds protects passersby from chunks of rock falling from the 132-year-old building, which is made of chalky red sandstone. In the past decade the church has spent over $1 million on maintenance. Since 1993, the church has paid over $45,000 in building fines and has 60 open violations.

Not surprisingly, Sundays at the church aren’t what they used to be. The smoked fish next door at Barney Greengrass draws a far bigger crowd. The church is down to a handful of members and hasn’t had a pastor since 2017.

It’s not for lack of trying that the institution is in this predicament.

Toward the end of the 2000s, the church began working with a developer to purchase and develop the property, and rebuild the house of worship in the process. The partnership folded, though, when Council member Gale Brewer set out to save the building and got the Landmarks Preservation Commission to designate it a landmark.

That was a dozen years ago. Now, history may be repeating itself.

This March, the church finally struck a deal to exit purgatory. Alchemy Properties, a developer with 35 projects in New York that has experience with adaptive reuse, agreed to purchase the church contingent on issuance of a demolition permit.

Alchemy ran tests to see whether it could salvage any of the building, but found that anything but a demolition would be all but impossible.

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If it can get the city’s blessing, Alchemy would put up a luxury condominium no larger than 120,000 square feet with a 10,000-square-foot worship space for the church.

But first the church needs permission from the Landmarks Preservation Commission to tear down its landmarked structure, something the city has only considered 19 (or so) times in its history.

Standing in the way of its hardship application is none other than Brewer, who was term-limited out of the Council in 2014 but has returned after eight years as borough president.

For her, this is about preserving what would be a glorious house of worship if it could be restored. She cannot stomach the idea of reducing it to rubble.

“I don’t want to use the word Ukraine, but it would be like watching something similar,” Brewer told local preservation groups last month.

Preservationists commissioned the Tocci Group to perform a structural analysis of the church, which found the façade could be repaired for $18 million. Brewer told The Real Deal that she would steer city funding to help pay for the repairs, but can’t because the building is owned by a church.

If it were a cultural center, “I don’t think we’d have any trouble at all raising the money,” Brewer said.

The Center at West Park, a cultural group based out of the church, seems to think it can raise the money for the repairs, but the most it has gathered in any one year was about $43,000. Nonetheless, the local community board’s preservation committee voted 8-1 against the demolition, and the full board is expected to echo that decision Tuesday. Board votes are advisory.

For its part, the religious institution is not counting on a miracle.

“The church supports the excellent work of the Center, but it can no longer continue to subsidize its operations or maintain the building because it’s simply out of money,” said Roger Leaf, chair of the church’s Administrative Commission. “The decision to submit a hardship application was not reached lightly.”

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