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Upper West Side Residents Slam Latest Church Conversion

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In the newest church to condo conversion, passionate sermons have been replaced with passionate opposition to a new design for the landmark building. At last night's Community Board 7 preservation committee meeting, members mulled the latest church to lose its religion: former First Church of Christ, Scientist, a building that dates to 1903 on the corner of 96th street and Central Park West. Li/Saltzman Architects presented the proposed changes to the landmark building, which included adding about 32,000 square feet to it—primarily by penthouse apartments on top of the structure—bringing the total square feet to 84,000. This would provide plenty of space for the 32 units that the owner—Brooklyn-based developer Joseph Brunner, according to permits—plans to build.

There would be four one-bedroom units at 1,300-1,400 square feet, 11 two-bedroom units at 1,200-2,600 square feet, 15 three-bedroom units at 2,000-5,100 square feet, and two four-bedroom units at 3,100-5,000 square feet. Of those, seven would be duplex apartments.

Principal architect, Judith Saltzman, described other changes as well: raising the pediment by 3 feet, 10 inches, putting small spikes on the steps to stop homeless people from sleeping on them, an acoustical enclosure added to house the chillers, which would reduce its noise to about 45 dBA (for comparison, a typical conversation is about 60 dBA). The renovation would also include restoration of tile roofing to match what was historically there, making numerous other repairs and cleaning the granite façade. Saltzman was careful to state that it would be done in the least damaging way possible. But by far the most dramatic change would be the removal of the famous stained glass windows—widely believed to have been designed by renowned artist, John La Farge, and the addition of dozens of other windows.

The plan would replace the stained glass windows with insulated transparent glass in a bronze frame. Further, since residential buildings have specific requirements for the amount of light and air they must have, 70 windows would be added to the façade (of those a whopping 42 would be added to the north side of the building). When the slide showing the new north façade was brought up on the screen, it immediately brought down the wrath of residents. Amid the crowd's disapproving murmurs, one man shouted, "it's a joke!" Saltzman was quick to add that the design was still up for review. And to the firm's credit, the north side of the building is one few people will see since it overlooks an alley and an apartment building.

But many residents remained unimpressed. They stood up one by one to express displeasure at the additional windows and to lament the loss of the stained glass. Susan Simon, who lives just a few feet away from the church, called the stained glass windows "one of the most magnificent sights I can imagine living next to." Committee member Peter Sampton said the façade with all the new windows "looked like it got shot up by a machine gun." In response, Saltzman said there had been numerous proposals to bring more light into the space including putting in a long panel of horizontal and vertical windows instead of small individual ones but this one had been chosen because it would remove the least amount of "historic fabric" from the building. She also stressed that the "effort has been to do this in an appropriate and sensitive way."

That didn't reassure residents like Dixie Martin, who'd lived in the neighborhood for 40 years and panned the changes overall saying it's "awful seeing it change from a church which does not retain the integrity of the original design." Umberto Dindo, an architect who brought prepared remarks to the meeting, agreed. "While we appreciate the desire and necessity to find an alternative use for this religious structure, its proposed conversion to residential use for which this church is entirely unsuitable portends more compromises to the integrity of the building should the project move forward." Dindo's final statement was met with applause: the "current approach is not only an attack on a beloved historical and community landmark, but also an attack on the very notion of Landmark Law." While resident Dawn Lee in a tongue-in-cheek remark, said it would be easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than convert the church into housing.

After the locals' comments—which lasted well past 10:30—the committee took up the vote. Co-chair Gabrielle Palitz commended the firm for a thorough presentation. Nonetheless, she didn't like the design and thought a more "unconventional" approach was necessary in lieu of the traditional Upper West Side aesthetic. Palitz pointed out that she understood it would take a lot of money to get a return on the investment of the building but thought the owner was trying to pack too many apartments in the space.

Seeming to direct his remarks to those who appeared to be most upset with the fact that the church was no longer a church, committee member Mark Diller pointed out the "challenge of adaptive reuse," and said what's happening with this church would likely happen to many others in the future. He continued, "As much as I want to preserve the religious iconography I can't deny it [design] based on that." He still went on to disapprove the design however, because of the three new tall lancet windows.

Ultimately, all six voting members disapproved the design but also expressed their overall support for what the firm is trying to do. Co-chair Jay Adolf summed it up this way: "Adaptive reuse is a fact of life in New York…as churches become financially unsustainable." It's really the main way to save these structures because "a white knight riding in is not going to happen."
—Kizzy Cox
· Central Park West Church Plows Towards Condo-Filled Future [Curbed]
· Landmarked Upper West Side Church Is Latest To Go Condo [Curbed]
· Mapping 26 NYC Houses of Worship Being Replaced By Condos [Curbed]