For years, a battle over whether or not to tear down one in every of New York Metropolis’s historic church buildings, a Nineteenth-century Romanesque Revival constructing on the Higher West Facet, has been forged in epic phrases, as a battle between the little individuals and large enterprise.
On this case, nonetheless, those that see themselves as representing the little individuals embody a rising checklist of New York celebrities.
And large enterprise? That may be an actual property agency working with the tiny congregation of the West Park Presbyterian Church, which says it can not afford to repair up the deteriorating constructing and hopes to promote it to a developer to construct new luxurious flats on the positioning.
What has ensued is a perplexing tug of struggle for the ethical excessive floor, set towards the backdrop of a long-running battle over who looks like they need to have management over the town’s future.
“It’s in regards to the individuals versus the firms on this metropolis,” as Mark Ruffalo, the actor and a church neighbor, put it at a public listening to this month. He was arguing in favor of saving the church constructing, which has been on the nook of Amsterdam Avenue and West 86th Avenue for the reason that Eighteen Eighties.
Roger Leaf, the chairman of the West Park Administrative Fee, which was created by the Presbytery of New York in 2020 to assist the church handle the house and discover a purchaser, says the congregation of a couple of dozen individuals desires to cease its monetary bleeding and use proceeds from the true property deal for higher causes, together with serving needy individuals throughout the town.
“It’s ironic that the rich neighbors of this church, who’ve multimillion flats, who’ve home windows overlooking this house, are claiming that they’re the little guys,” he mentioned.
The precise story is lengthy, sophisticated and bitter, involving a seamless lawsuit, a number of conflicting engineering assessments and accusations of dangerous religion from each side.
It’s one other instance of how houses of worship, confronted with declining membership, have turned to personal improvement to rejuvenate themselves.
And, extra broadly, it represents New York Metropolis’s many fraught makes an attempt to steadiness progress and preservation, a dialog that has turn out to be extra consequential as the town struggles with a housing scarcity and officers hunt for locations to place new properties — even luxurious ones.
However the entry of Mr. Ruffalo and various celebrities — the actor Wendell Pierce, the comic Amy Schumer, the rapper Frequent and extra — into the struggle over the church, greater than 20 years after it first started, has added an uncommon twist to a typical metropolis battle.
Mr. Ruffalo even cornered Mayor Eric Adams on the Tribeca Movie Pageant this month to plead his case. The assembly led to a different extra formal one on Thursday with members of Metropolis Corridor, together with the deputy mayor for housing, financial improvement and work drive, Maria Torres-Springer, and church leaders, who discover it baffling that their quest to destroy the constructing has changed into a high-profile political melodrama.
All sides agree in regards to the storied historical past of the church and its architectural significance. The landmarks commission praised the “terribly deep coloration of its crimson sandstone cladding” and its “monumental and distinguished presence,” which it mentioned made it “one of many Higher West Facet’s most essential buildings.” West Park grew to become recognized within the Seventies and Nineteen Eighties as an early ally of the antiwar motion and L.G.B.T.Q. individuals, Mr. Leaf mentioned.
However across the similar time, the church grew to become a flashpoint within the metropolis’s actual property battles.
As early because the Nineteen Eighties, West Park fought towards preservationist rules that might restrict the way it may use its property, arguing that it must be excluded from a historic district within the neighborhood.
Church members had been in search of builders to form a brand new future for his or her deteriorating constructing since 2001, mentioned Marsha Flowers, a ruling elder of West Park who was been a member of the congregation for 30 years.
In 2010, because the church was on the cusp of a deal to construct housing on the positioning, preservationists efficiently obtained the constructing designated as a metropolis landmark. Landmarks are strictly regulated and sometimes stop homeowners from making main and even minor adjustments that alter the looks of their buildings.
Mr. Leaf mentioned circumstances within the constructing stored getting worse. Estimates for the way a lot it will price in complete to renovate it are round $50 million, together with $14 million to take care of crumbling facades and $4 million to adjust to constructing and hearth code violations.
Final June, the church introduced a brand new utility to the Landmarks Preservation Fee, basically saying the deteriorating constructing and its landmark standing introduced a hardship to the church, which has no cash to stick with it. They requested the fee to permit it to be redeveloped.
However the fee has solely granted such functions 13 occasions because it was established within the Sixties, suggesting the percentages are within the preservationists’ favor.
However, Mr. Leaf is optimistic. He mentioned if the applying was granted, a developer, Alchemy Companions, has already signed a contract that might pay the church greater than $30 million to demolish the constructing and construct luxurious flats there.
“That may fund meals pantries, soup kitchens, warming facilities, early childhood schooling facilities, homeless shelters and so forth,” he mentioned.
Alchemy would additionally pay the church $8 million to arrange a brand new house within the constructing.
Preservationists dispute most of the church’s characterizations of its predicament, saying it’s exaggerating the greenback figures wanted. Aligned with them is a nonprofit group known as the Middle at West Park, a tenant that holds artwork performances and different occasions within the church.
(The West Park congregation itself went digital throughout the pandemic; one other congregation, the Lighthouse Chapel, holds providers there weekly.)
Some even accuse the church of deliberately letting the constructing fall into disrepair.
“If the fee had been to grant this utility, it will present a highway map to each proprietor of a landmarked property within the Metropolis of New York of get your constructing destroyed,” mentioned Michael Hiller, a lawyer representing the middle.
Mr. Ruffalo mentioned in an interview that the neighborhood had “breathed a sigh of aid” when the church was designated as a landmark.
He mentioned he recurrently attends occasions there and had been contemplating organizing an occasion of his personal when, just a few weeks in the past, he discovered in regards to the church’s utility.
“That is what I do, man,” he mentioned. “I exploit my platform to talk for people who find themselves being abused by a system that has stored them out, that doesn’t give them a voice and that we by no means get to listen to from.”
He mentioned he enlisted different mates and celebrities, and he rejected the notion that the state of affairs was an instance of rich New Yorkers utilizing their clout.
Mr. Ruffalo and others are mounting their very own marketing campaign to lift cash for the constructing. One crowdsourced fund-raiser has raised about $16,000 towards their $250,0000 goal — together with a $1,000 donation from Mr. Ruffalo.
“With out areas like that, I’d have by no means made it as an actor,” Mr. Ruffalo mentioned. “With out these locations, there isn’t any theater in New York Metropolis.”
Debby Hirshman, who grew to become government director of the middle this spring, mentioned nameless donors are keen to pay for obligatory repairs to get rid of the hardship — even as much as $50 million. The church, nonetheless, mentioned it has obtained no detailed details about such a proposal.
It’s not clear what’s going to occur subsequent with the church’s utility, or when the fee would possibly decide.