A packed Spector Hall for the 361 CPW Hearing at the BSA

An ever-growing roster of neighbors were joined by dozens of former congregants from the Crenshaw Christian Center East (CCCE) and their (now) Atlanta Georgia-based Pastor Terry and Mrs. Lynda Starks at yesterday’s fourth Board of Standards and Appeals (BSA) hearing on the future of Carrère and Hastings’ 361 Central Park West individual landmark. Once again, BSA Chair Margery Perlmutter recused herself, once again the applicant produced another set of financial justifications for the project despite an ever-changing sequence of variables. Yet, some things remain the same.

The Church is a 1903 masterpiece by the architects Carrère and Hastings, who later designed the beloved main branch of the New York Public Library (Fifth Avenue & 42nd Street) and the Frick mansion (Fifth Avenue & 70th Street).  When the Church was designated a New York City Individual Landmark in 1974 (one of the first Upper West Side buildings to achieve landmark status), the Landmarks Preservation Commission called it “an outstanding example Beaux-Arts classical design” and praised “its many fine architectural details [that] give the building great distinction.”

Incomprehensibly, in March 2015, the Landmarks Commission approved (by a deeply split vote) plans to destroy many of those same distinguished details –including stained glass windows attributed to a pre-eminent artist — to enable the conversion of the Church into luxury condominiums.  The Commission also granted permission to carve new windows in the granite facade, some of which will be less than ten feet away from the neighboring apartment building to the north, degrading the Landmark as well as the quality and value of neighbors’ living spaces.

Why should you care?  Because this is no way to preserve landmarks and no way to treat citizens whose lives are invested in properties adjacent to landmarks that they had every reason to believe were protected.  The next time this happens, it could be to you! 

Former congregants described the building as the physical and spiritual anchor of the block and the community.  Coming from as far away as Virginia, New Jersey, Georgia and Connecticut, they spoke of how this facility attracted thousands every week and proved the developer’s arguments that a church is a “functionally obsolete” program use to be false.

Current neighbors shared analysis of the proximity of the developer’s new curtain wall windows to their property, and discussed the impact on light, air, noise and privacy–effectively a taking by the developer.

And experts shared their analysis.  Kathy Grace Rambush of the Rambush Decorating Company who performed work for a 1990’s restoration of the stained glass cited the LPC’s jockying over how to carve up the windows to suit the developer but noted that this is ridiculous design-wise, and physically risky–even dangerous.  According to Rambush, if the internal tension builds up in a window it could just pop out…like a glass eye on the sidewalk.

Christabel Gough, for Society for the Architecture of the City cited the Landmarks Preservation Commission’s habit of authorizing the removal of religious iconography as irrelevant but emphasized that this IS where the BSA becomes relevant- because there are impacts on the neighboring building and the public. Despite an LPC technical finding of appropriateness, the adverse impact on public welfare is within the BSA’s judgement of findings.  Ms. Gough cited the instance of just one other individual landmark (in Cobble Hill) where religious iconography was allowed to be removed from a primary facade, and in that case, the landmark was not in nearly as prominent a location.

LANDMARK WEST! is continuing to work closely with neighbors to push back against this proposal and their associated variances. While Developers Joseph Brunner and Ira Shapiro get a fifth bite at the apple in their forthcoming submission, a vote is scheduled for Tuesday, February 9th.  Please mark your calendars and consider the following facts:

  • In 2014, a pair of experienced and savvy developers known for high-risk real estate schemes gained control of the former First Church of Christ, Scientist, fully aware of its Landmark status and the legal constraints of the site, with the intention of converting it to residential use.
  • The developers took advantage of the then-resident congregation’s eagerness to sell and acquired the Church of $26 million
  • The developers have turned away at least one potential non-residential user–a prominent neighborhood cultural and educational institution – by quoting an exorbitant sales price of $50 million.

    BSA submittal 01.03

    Rendering of North Facade incorporating alterations proposed by the developer.

  • Now the developers claim “hardship” because the existing zoning doesn’t allow them to create the number of residential units they say are needed to generate a “reasonable return”.  They are seeking zoning variances that, by our math, will yield a return of 100%(!) at the expense of the Landmark and neighbors.

We all need to stand up to these efforts to manipulate and exploit our city’s landmarks and planning processes to maximize profit.  That “someone” is Landmark West! but we can’t do it alone.  

Neighbors have hired attorney Michael Hiller (who recently defended the New York Public Library stacks from being gutted and is currently representing advocates working to protect the Landmark clock tower at 346 Broadway from yet another mercenary development scheme).  At yesterday’s public hearing, Mr. Hiller argued persuasively before the BSA, and he is preparing written submissions in response to the developer’s final attempt to meet the standards for variances.  Please SUPPORT our cause to save this one-of-a-kind individual landmark.


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