The future of West-Park Presbyterian Church in New York remains uncertain. As the Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) continues to consider preserving the historic status of the church, the building’s owner has filed a lawsuit to evict its nonprofit tenant.
Before the lawsuit was filed on August 15, the final chapter in the debate over preservation or demolition took place on July 19 when the LPC held its second hearing on the matter. Both public hearings followed Community Board 7’s vote to maintain the structure’s historic status and the Preservation Committee’s vote to keep the church intact.
The owner of this battle is the West-Park Presbyterian Church, a religious society made up of the church’s congregation, 12 strong as of April 2022. The group supports the demolition on the grounds that the volume of disrepair renders the financial future of the church unsustainable. .
Zachary Tomlinson has a different view. He is the artistic director of Center at West Park (The Center), the defendant tenant threatened with eviction. Tomlinson told ILTUWS in April that the financial shortfall existed at the time of the original lease and the Center was created because of it. The partnership between the parties was to be long-term, according to Tomlinson, one that would raise funds over time to restore the building.
The West Park Presbyterian Church Complaint concedes the latter. But, according to the complaint, the church believes the Center failed to meet its obligation under its below-market lease. Specifically, West Park alleges that the Center failed to “raise funds for restoration and take steps to restore the premises.” He further asserted that the current lease is null and void because the Center did not obtain the prior approval required by New York Religious Societies Law.
The Center refuted these claims in an emailed press release on August 18:
“Since 2017, the Center has occupied the church under a five-year lease which expires on December 31 of this year, with a five-year renewal option which allows the Center to unilaterally extend the lease until December 31. 2027. Asked at the July 19 public meeting about this issue, Roger Leaf, on behalf of the approximately 10 parishioners of the Church, suggested that additional consent from the small congregation for the extension was required under the lease. .
However, Michael S. Hiller, a landmark preservation lawyer who represents the Center, responded that Mr. Leaf’s assertion to the Commission was false. Mr. Hiller confirmed that “the lease expressly grants the Center the unilateral right to extend the term of the five-year lease, and further contains an express statement by the congregation that all authorizations required for the lease, including extension , were obtained prior to his execution.” As Hiller explains, “the lawsuit, although framed in false allegations that the Center is supposed to be in breach, is in fact only a subterfuge by the congregation to avoid the promises and representations he has made, and to reap an economic boon at the expense of a precious monument and the public he has been appointed to serve. And worse, the congregation, in its lawsuit, seeks to mislead the Court, just as Mr. Leaf tried to mislead the Commission.
If West Park congregation’s request to effectively rid the building of its historic status is granted, the property would have to be sold to developer Alchemy Properties for $33 million, which would convert the church into a residential skyscraper at the rate from the market with a 10,000 square foot space for a church, community activities and arts programs.
Meanwhile, the LPC has not scheduled the issue for future discussion at this time. “Landmarks brought in its consulting engineer Donald Friedman, who was present during the site visit, to further analyze the issue. Landmarks is also hiring an outside expert and will hold another public meeting after Labor Day for the two experts to present their findings.