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United Palace Cathedral Gets Landmark Approval, Despite Church Opposition

By Carolina Pichardo | December 14, 2016 2:08pm
 The United Palace, which last served as a theater in 1969, was approved for landmark designation on Tuesday.
The United Palace, which last served as a theater in 1969, was approved for landmark designation on Tuesday.
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DNAinfo/Nigel Chiwaya

WASHINGTON HEIGHTS — The historic United Palace Cathedral got a long-awaited approval for landmark designation by the Landmarks Preservation Commission Tuesday — but the cathedral's owners and local elected officials have mounted a full-scale fight against the decision.

The Palace, which was among the hundreds of buildings that had languished for up to a half-century on the LPC's backlogged applications, got the green light to receive designation Tuesday afternoon, officials said. The cathedral was built more than 85 years ago, and had been on the LPC calendar for 20 years or more, according to city documents. 

But despite its historical significance, the new owners, United Christian Evangelical Association church, oppose the designation and are urging churchgoers and others to write letters to the City Council urging them to vote against it, a church official told DNAinfo New York.

Designating the church as landmark would “cause extra expense” for the church and “add nothing to the Church’s programs and events,” church officials wrote in their open letter opposing the designation.

Landmarked sites often have to spend more on renovations and wade through more red tape before making run-of-the mill construction decisions, critics say. That can be a hardship for places like churches, which may struggle with dwindling congregations and rising overhead costs.

The Palace, however, has long been known for hosting big-name events, including concerts by performers including Bob Dylan, Bjork and Sigur Ros. It's also currently raising money with the help of Lin-Manuel Miranda to revamp its screen and sound system as part of the United Palace Cultural Arts Center.

"The church has spent enormous amounts of money over the years maintaining the United Palace without government support," said president and chairman of the United Palace, Xavier Eikerenkoetter, in a statement to DNAinfo New York. "With Tuesday's vote to designate the building a landmark, not only will it increase the cost of maintaining the building by requiring specific materials to be used for any repairs, it will also unnecessarily lengthen any renovation by requiring consent from the Landmarks Commission." 

Eikerenkoetter also said the "church would prefer to preserve its right to have full control over its building in order to best continue its mission of serving the community" after almost five decades. 

Some residents, however, support the landmarking of the exterior of the United Palace. Maggie Clarke, founder of Inwood Preservation, said the palace is a "gem to be preserved."

"Current owners should be stewards and there is a real concern of selling off the property that should be preserved," Clarke said. "Financial pressures are real and anything down to the exterior will cost, but that should not be a reason to take it off as a landmark. Landmarking will also open other opportunities." 

Councilman Ydanis Rodriguez, who earlier this year said he was also against the designation, said it was it unfair to single out the Palace as the only landmark designated site, when there are other locations in Washington Heights worthy of designation.

Rodriguez said the LPC "disrespected our community" by neglecting other landmark-worthy sites like the Wadsworth Avenue Baptist Church, which "has now been torn down by developers," and the Coliseum Theater at 181st St., which he fears will suffer the same fate "given their denial to save it."   

Although Rodriguez didn't confirm this week whether he was still against the designation, he did say he will meet with "community stakeholders," including the owners, before making a final decision. 

“The United Palace has been owned by the same family for over 50 years. They have been tremendous stewards over this treasured site, opening it up to the joy of the community and keeping it in great shape," said Rodriguez. 

The Palace's application now moves to City Planning, where the commissions has 60 days to review and explain to the City Council what impact the designation will have on zoning and public improvement.

From there, the application will move to the City Council, where members have 120 days from the time of the LPC designation to either modify or disapprove the application. A majority vote is needed before it can move to the mayor, who can veto or approve the City Council's vote.