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Locals Claim Victory in City's Rejection of UWS Church-to-Condo Plan

By DNAinfo Staff | June 6, 2016 5:20pm
 The developer applied for a number of zoning variances from the Board of Standards and Appeals.
The developer applied for a number of zoning variances from the Board of Standards and Appeals.
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By Todd Stone

Special to DNAinfo New York

UPPER WEST SIDE — The city denied a developer's request to convert a landmarked church to condos under the current plan — a move cheered by preservationists and hailed by some as a historic ruling by officials. 

The city's Board of Standards and Appeals (BSA) last week rejected owner 361 Central Park West LLC's bid for a zoning variance that would allow it to build 34 luxury condominiums inside the church at 96th Street and Central Park West.

The owner had previously received permission from the Landmarks Preservation Commission to move ahead with its plans, but it still needed a variance from the BSA, which handles building zoning.

The board rejected the request largely because it did not find the developer’s explanation of the financial hardships it needed to show to get the variance plausible, said Michael Hiller, an attorney representing the project's opponents.

“This was a real David-and-Goliath victory,” said Kate Wood, President of the nonprofit group Landmark West! “We can get very cynical that city agencies will take the side of the developer, but this time, they did the right thing."

Mitchell Korbey, a lawyer representing the developer, said they were very disappointed with the decision.

“Our objective was to do the right thing preservation-wise," he said. "And in an area as densely populated as the Upper West Side, building 34 units is a modest endeavor.

Korbey noted that the owner's proposed changes to the building were not dramatic. “It’s a remarkable building that we intended to restore,” he said, adding he wasn't sure about the developer's next steps, but that they are reviewing all options. 

Hiller said the decision had broader significance.

“This was, without a doubt, the most important decision by the BSA in decades,” he said. “Had the developer prevailed, landmark buildings throughout New York City would have been forever vulnerable to development opportunities for the super rich.” 

While many former members of the church want it again to operate as a house of worship, Landmark West! is fine with the condo conversion, as long as it doesn’t deface the building or violate zoning rules, Wood said.

She explained that the owner can now either sell the property or find a use for it that would that would fall within required laws. Opponents have previously stated that a revised development plan following these guidelines would lead to a reduction in units. 

David Murphy — who lives in the building adjacent to the church and who helped form the Central Park West Neighbors’ Association to combat the development — said the original plan would have violated zoning laws requiring a certain amount of space exist between the buildings.

There is currently 10 feet between the church and his building, 370 Central Park West, but the plan to convert the church to multiple residences would have violated the law, he said.

The church's former pastor, Terry Starks, acknowledged in his testimony last week that the church made a mistake by selling the building in the first place. 

His hope is to restore building as a church and revive its community, many of whom attended the hearing. Starks alluded to the developer saying it would take two to three years to get residents into the proposed condominiums.

“If you give me two to three years [as pastor]," he said, "you wouldn’t have enough room to put people."