Debby Hirshman enters the diner from behind me, and arrives smiling—both of us simultaneously looking forward and back. As we lock eyes in one of the mirrored portions of the otherwise carpeted walls of Café 82 and sit in a hunter-green and dark mauve upholstered booth, the difference between this laminated environment and the mahogany encrusted sanctuary/theater at West Park couldn’t be more striking.

Hirshman, best known as the former Executive Director and the one who “got the Jewish Community Center (JCC) built” ten blocks south at 76th Street and Amsterdam Avenue, is now the Executive Director of the Center at West Park, at 86th Street and Amsterdam Avenue, a coalition of community members organized in 2016 dedicated to revitalizing the landmark structure as a community resource, and a home for arts and culture. Although originally brought in as a consultant to forecast and implement a plan of financial viability for the Center, her role and scope quickly evolved only six days later when the artistic director gave their notice. Oh, and by the way, the owner of the individually landmarked building has a pending agreement with a developer to replace it with a 19-story market-rate luxury building, and the underlying lease extension is in question. Despite seemingly insurmountable obstacles, Hirshman didn’t hesitate.

As Debby offers a warm hug, sheds her coat, waves to a neighbor, and stops to talk to another diner at a different table, as if on cue, Pedro from the dedicated staff brings a black coffee with an upside-down spoon across the mug’s rim. It’s an immediate tell for decaf. Tag-teaming throughout our conversation, his colleague, Cesar makes sure the cup remains full.

“New first question, how do you have all this energy without drinking caffeine?”

An ice breaker, Hirshman admits she doesn’t touch the hard stuff. But amidst the demands of her equally tireless iPhone, we launch into a discussion of the organic nature of her journey. A long-time UWS resident of The Montana, Hirshman hadn’t attended any prior events at West Park, a reality she hopes to change for others in the neighborhood and beyond. “I took one look at the sanctuary and said no way can they tear this down,” and no doubt it is impressive. With its carved wooden panels, generous ceiling, and light filtered through monumental stained glass, it is overwhelming to behold. Unfortunately, it also became overwhelmingly burdensome to maintain for the congregation, who had worshiped there for over a century. Hirshman isn’t daunted.

She begins this endeavor with an arsenal of lessons learned from her experience at the JCC. Of course, fixing and preserving something is harder than building something new (in the first 11 months of 2023, the Center has poured over $182,000 of maintenance investments into the physical plant). Still, she shares that the most significant (non-monetary) contributions happen organically and are achievable if one readily puts forward values at the beginning—allowing the community to engage with the entirety of the project. For her and the Center, these include building a community “that spans diverse points of view; racial, cultural, ethnic, and socioeconomic backgrounds; national origins and immigration statuses; ages, abilities, orientations, and gender identities; and religious and spiritual affiliations (or lack thereof).” It permeates their board, staff, artists, and audiences. Notably, this pledge of acceptance and diversity embodies many of the values and beliefs practiced by the once-progressive congregation throughout its 137-year history.

A case in point is the recent sold-out presentations of “This is Our Youth,” the coming-of-age play set in the 1980s UWS, written by Kenneth Lonergan and read by Missy Yager, Matt Damon, and Mark Ruffalo.

Ruffalo, an Upper West Sider and budding sculptor who practices at the Art Students League of New York on West 57th, was searching for studio space. After a call from his agent, Hirshman noted how her son Myles grew up with Ruffalo’s kids; a personal call quickly followed, and the rest is history. After an initial benefit evening, the actors performed an encore with tickets in greater reach of a broader range of the public. “I believed strongly from the beginning that we had to do both,” explains Hirshman, who seeks to continually engage the community and foster the collaborative ownership of the Center’s endeavor. It was critical that they model their values in their every action. To that extent, at the close of the first reading, Hirshman announced a promise to the audience and the community at large. Too often, the refrain has been, “That building has been under scaffolding forever—they should just tear it down.” While that is not a sensible justification to demolish a building—let alone an individual landmark—she and her board are listening. They have committed to a $2M campaign—a price set based upon the true cost of securing the structure, which was placed at $1.7M by the Landmarks Preservation Commission’s own independent expert consultants. This may seem a foolish undertaking for a tenant whose lease is challenged by their landlord and under review by the court system. Still, Hirshman brushes away any doubt, explaining, “in some way, we believe that every day is an opportunity to affect human life, then this isn’t about the outcome. Every day, this building is a gift that allows us to reflect our powers and abilities—no matter what period of time [of lease remains], we are justified in removing the scaffolding that for too long has distorted the community’s perception of the safety of the building.”

It is a resounding statement of faith—and one in a building many had forsaken. Even with the scaffolding down, obstacles would remain: the congregation, and the open LPC hardship application. Hirshman has answers. To the congregation: “We want to make you whole; what is the price?” To the remaining congregants of the church: “We want you to have a say in the space you grew up in and find a way for you too, to be viable. Let’s work something out together to avoid demolition.” This is possible because of her lessons from the JCC: timeless values and collective ownership set up a mentality that is transmissible. With the congregation’s interests potentially resolved through a combination of money and access, all that would remain is the hardship application itself.

Navigating the Landmarks Preservation Commission differs from her experience in building the JCC in that the latter was an as-of-right construction, and needed to follow the City Planning and Department of Buildings rules and regulations. In that case, they could better control time and, thus, the schedule. In this instance, the LPC’s criteria and rules are written much more broadly so they can apply to a wide range of landmark scenarios and are thus susceptible to Talmudic interpretation. Regardless of the debate, a few truths remain.

The applicant has four criteria to meet:

  1. The owner of such improvement has entered into a bona fide agreement to sell an estate of freehold or to grant a term of at least twenty years in such improvement parcel, which agreement is subject to or contingent upon the issuance of the certificate of appropriateness or a notice to proceed;
  2. The improvement parcel which includes such improvement, as existing at the time of the filing of such request, would not, if it were not exempt in whole or in part from real property taxation be capable of earning a reasonable return;
  3. Such improvement has ceased to be adequate, suitable or appropriate for use for carrying out both (1) the purposes of such owner to which it is devoted and (2) those purposes to which it had been devoted when acquired unless such owner is no longer engaged in pursuing such purposes; and
  4. The prospective purchaser, in the case of an application for a permit to demolish seeks and intends, in good faith to demolish such improvement immediately for the purpose of constructing on the site thereof with reasonable promptness a new building or other facility. 25-309(a)(2) (emphases added).

The first criterion is a mere fact: the Presbytery of New York City is in contract with Alchemy Properties, period. The others are increasingly less evident. For criteria two, the LPC’s independent cost analysis used some of the LPC’s independent structural analysis and some of the applicant’s numbers. If the Center makes the stabilization repairs as promised, these points become moot. Further, many have argued that nonprofits should not be expected to have a “reasonable” 6% rate of return—because they are nonprofits. While the Center is now fundraising, the hardship was filed while the City was in the throes of COVID-19, inevitably impacting both its finances and in-person participation. How do the commissioners of the LPC weigh this once-in-a-lifetime global phenomenon against the letter of the statute, which notes “at the time of the filing”? The fundraising potential in Q4 2023 is clearly drastically different than it was in Q2 2022. This is evidenced in their consistently full calendar of performances and events and the who’s who list the community can look forward to, from more Kenneth Lonergan and Clyde Haberman to Tony Kushner and others—right on 86th Street and further building the legacy of this historic landmark.

Items three and four are even less justifiable. When prompted on suitable purpose, Hirshman immediately responds, “It is important that the roots, being a sacred, spiritual place of religion, remain an anchor to what we do. This is why we have the Light House Chapel worshiping here every week, maintaining the spiritual experience.” So, what defines the charitable purposes to which it was devoted? The West Park Presbyterian congregation is welcomed back to worship and chooses not to; meanwhile, others worship there weekly, and there is a roster of community tenants and programming. What then constitutes a church? A charitable mission? Lastly, the purchaser needs to, in good faith, “demolish such improvement [the landmark] immediately,” which cannot be done with a sited tenant and a lease extension carried through December 31, 2027. By this time, the economics and building’s condition will undeniably be different—either from extended wear or from restorative maintenance, and hardship would need to be reevaluated anew.

While these are promising signs, Hirshman concedes that time remains a factor to contend with. Just as resolutely, she claims the power of the building is its past and its present and notes that it is our collective responsibility to ensure its future. Ever optimistic, Hirshman sees a future with only winners—a reunited church congregation that is financially whole, and a community enriched and enlivened through meaningful theater, dance, music, and YOU. She emphasizes, “We must find a way to move forward together.”

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