No End Yet To Battle Over Upper West Side Church Conversion

361 Central Park West - existing conditions, 2014 proposal, and 2015 proposal.361 Central Park West - existing conditions, 2014 proposal, and 2015 proposal.

Will the former First Church of Christ, Scientist in New York City at 361 Central Park West become condominiums? We still don’t know. But we do know many in the community don’t want the conversion and at least one pastor wants to preach there.

Last March, the Landmarks Preservation Commission, after refinements, blessed the project. The full board of Community Board 7 voted against it, but Community Board votes don’t officially stop projects.

That left it in the hands of the Board of Standards and Appeals. The BSA has to approve variances necessary in order for the project to go forward. The process has been going on for months. At a December 1, 2015 hearing, it really seemed like we’d get a vote on the matter on January 12, 2016. But at that lengthy hearing, there was still no resolution.

The applicant, listed as 361 Central Park West LLC, needs to prove five hardships (detailed in our December story) in order for the BSA to grant the variances. In December, one BSA member accused the applicant of lowballing estimates.

This time, there was quibbling over the difference between a Brown Harris Stevens report and a Corcoran report, but applicant attorney Calvin Wong said his team was prepared to “upwardly adjust the value of the number of units in the building to reflect Central Park views as well as the cache of living in a converted church on Central Park West.” He said $7.8 million in upwards adjustments resulted in an average price per square foot of $1,908.

In order to offset that and reduce the number of waivers sought, they have increased the amount of community facility space in the project. By eliminating unit 1F, they were able to add 1,750 square feet of community facility space, bringing the total to 8,100 square feet. It also allowed them to eliminate the need for seven windows. You are required to have light and air (that’s the official term) for residential use, but not for community facility use. Eliminating one residential unit would also bring the count from the 39 proposed to the LPC down to 35.

Additionally, Wong said new asbestos remediation cost figures have reduced the construction cost by $665,000. He added that the unique physical condition that presents a practical difficulty (one of the hardships) is that it is a building constructed before the 1916 zoning resolution and for a use – house of worship – that is no longer economically viable on the site.

One BSA member did ask: What if you kept it as an auditorium-type building?

Attorney Michael Hiller, representing the Central Park West Neighbors Association, asserted, once again, that the developer has not met the five hardship findings. He insisted that the building could be repurposed for religious or other community use and scoffed at the $80 million estimate to retrofit it for modern use of that type, mentioning that the Children’s Museum of Manhattan had considered moving there. Hiller said the developer has never marketed the property, that the 13-foot distance between the new proposed residential windows and the existing residential windows at 370 Central Park West would be “tenement”-like and would essentially transfer 370CPW’s light and air to 361CPW. He said the proposal would “desecrate” the building.

Enter Pastor Terry Starks. After preaching at multiple Manhattan churches, he went to Georgia, where he presides over Fresh Start-New Beginning Christian Church. But he’d like to return to New York and would love to have a congregation at 361 Central Park West. Starks brought dozens of friends and former parishioners to the hearing. “I dare ay he could have brought a whole lot more,” his attorney said.

“The human mind is the most powerful engine we can possibly ever have,” the attorney said, pushing for the idea of a church at the structure. “What happens to the human mind when it’s not replenished?… It goes awry.”

Several of Starks’s former parishioners, plus neighbors of 361CPW and advocates came to oppose the conversion proposal.

Douglas Elliman broker and 50 West 97th Street resident Gabrielle Everett said she was “always in awe of the beauty of the building.” It would be a “travesty” to lose its artistry, she said.

“Should we me exceptions to our laws [so] private profit can be made?” asked Charles Warren.

Sean Khorsandi of Landmark West! accused the developer of playing a “shell game,” saying he has “endless ways of spinning he numbers.” “Do you really believe that this application can be made credible?”

Architects Luis Salazar and Antonia Rossello of Salazar + Rossello Architecture spoke of “exceptional buildings” such as 361 Central Park West, saying the conversion plan would be “artistic mutilation.”

Christabel Gough of the Society for the Architecture of the City spoke of the LPC’s narrower and narrower interpretation of the Landmarks law and the focus on visibility, a “growing disregard” of neighboring properties in historic districts with “regrettable results.”

David Murphy, a resident of 370 Central Park West, said approving this project would be set a “bad precedent” and send a “dangerous message.”

Susan Simon, also of 370 Central Park West, spoke of “nurturing a diverse, livable, and humane city.” “[It’s] time re rethink speculative development.”

Susan Brody, again of 370, said the 13-foot window-to-window distance would be “too close for comfort.” She said it would be like the Alfred Hitchcock film “Rear Window,” but without the need for binoculars.

The matter is expected to come back before the BSA on Tuesday, February 9. Stay tuned.

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1 Comment on "No End Yet To Battle Over Upper West Side Church Conversion"

  1. As a resident of the neighborhood of the church who has been following this “reuse” fairly closely, I’d like to add to the record. The photos shown at the top of the article illustrate the church as it currently stands. Although the caption reads: “existing conditions, 2014 proposal, and 2015 proposal,” leaving the impression that there will be no visible change to the building, the reality is shown in this rendering of the north side of the church as proposed.
    [looks like your system won’t let me upload the photo]

    So, while the developers would have us believe that the changes are minimal and non-disruptive, that idea is contradicted by this rendering of their plan. This lit up façade sits 9-15 feet from the neighboring building.

    It should also be noted that the developer has stated (in testimony to the BSA) that he expects to realize $100 million return on his investment in this property, which most people would not characterize as a “hardship.” In addition, BSA requires that applicants before them meet all five of their findings to receive variances in the zoning regulations. At this point, the developer has not adequately met any of them.

    Pastor Terry, as mentioned in this article, was actually the former pastor of Chrenshaw Christian Church, and he came to NYC with 50 or so of his congregants to protest this development. Apparently there was some kind of disagreement within the church that pushed him out of the picture. However, he has stated that he would love to move back in, along with his congregants, which indicates that the building is not obsolete in function. The developers have not given serious consideration to uses for the building other than as residential property.

    This is a project that symbolizes the greed and power of real estate in this city. If such projects are allowed to continue without regard to quality of life, what will happen to our designated landmarks and the preservation of our history embodied by them?

    It is worth repeating that the developer has appeared before the BSA four times – not the norm – to try to argue his case and still has not been able to show why he should be granted variances based on his hardship claim. And now he is being allowed, once again, to revise his numbers.

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