A member of West Park Presbyterian church’s governing board, Hugo Meneses, was arrested during an April 17 protest against efforts to landmark the West 86th Street building. The protest was just days before a City Council subcommittee held its first hearing on the landmark proposal, which has already gotten support from the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission.
Meneses was collared for attempting to paint “Stop Gale Brewer’s Forced Landmarking” on the sidewalk shed around the church. Police prevented him from finishing the final word.
“It’s something that is [supported] by outsiders of the community of the church and by Council Member Brewer,” Meneses said in a phone interview April 19. “I don’t think it’s fair for a minority church to go through this because the neighborhood’s rich people want it.”
The church’s leader, Rev. Robert Brashear, has long insisted that the regulations accompanying landmark designation will make it difficult to work with a developer on needed renovations. The building cannot host congregants or provide services to those in need because of its deteriorated state.
“This building was created by our forbearers to extend their mission in their neighborhood in their city,” said Brashear in an interview a day before the hearing. “Our hope is that [the subcommittee members] realize there are more constituents to be respectful of than the preservation community. Nobody loves and respects [the church] more than we do. For people in the neighborhood, it’s an aesthetic amenity.”
At the April 20 hearing, landmark opponents brought signs saying, “YES to religious freedom, NO to forced landmarking,” and framed the preservation efforts as an attack on religious freedom. Supporters of landmarking, who have included State Sen. Eric Schneiderman, Assembly Member Linda Rosenthal and Public Advocate Bill de Blasio, argued at the hearing that such protections were necessary to preserve a building that would otherwise languish.
“The question here is mission,” Brashear said at the hearing. “Who has the right to determine the mission of our church?”
The subcommittee will not vote on the designation until its next meeting, but the outcome seems preordained. The Council often defers to local members’ wishes when it comes to landmarking, and Brewer has been an avid supporter of protecting the church from the beginning. She will cast a vote on the matter if the proposal moves out of the Land Use Committee to the full Council.
While Brashear said that “no one” has come up with a plan to maintain the church’s architecture and allow the congregation to return and provide services, Brewer insisted that a strategy will be devised.
“That is upsetting to me. I tried to help. When I say I had 100 meetings on this topic, I’m not kidding,” Brewer said in a separate interview. “I’m confidant that people understand the importance of landmarks. The landmark community will have to make their case and I’m sure the ministers will make their case.”n
With additional reporting by Megan Finnegan.
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