Preservationists and clergy clash over proposed E.V./L.E.S. district

BY LESLEY SUSSMAN  |  Preservationists who want to see a large chunk of the Lower East Side and East Village designated as historic districts and religious leaders who oppose being told what to do with their houses of worship, laid out their arguments before the Landmarks Preservation Commission Tuesday in a contentious, jam-packed hearing.

It was the pro-preservation forces, however, who seemed to gain the upper hand at the 3:30 p.m. hearing, filling the ninth-floor hearing room at One Centre St. with a large number of supporters, many wearing stickers that read, “Preserve the East Village, Landmark Now.”

The 11 L.P.C. commissioners held the public hearing to gather feedback on a proposed 330-building district that would stretch zigzag fashion in a 15-block area from St. Marks Place to Second St. and from Avenue A almost to the Bowery.

A final vote by the commission isn’t expected for months to come. However, if the historic landmark designation goes into effect, it would lend protections to hundreds of historic buildings, including cultural icons like the La MaMa Theater, the former Fillmore East building and the Anthology Film Archives, as well as several houses of worship.

Currently, the only other historic districts in the neighborhood are a small enclave around St. Marks Church-in-the Bowery that was approved in 1979 — that includes buildings on Stuyvesant and E. Tenth Sts. — and, designated this January, one block of 26 quaint row houses and tenements along E. 10th St. between Avenues A and B on the north edge of Tompkins Square Park.

In the first hour and a half of the nearly three-hour hearing, roughly 80 speakers — mostly preservationists — had their say. Also testifying in favor of the historic landmark designation were representatives of City Councilmember Rosie Mendez, state Senator Daniel Squadron, Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer and state Senator Tom Duane.

A spokesperson for Assemblymember Deborah Glick told Landmarks Commission Chairperson Robert Tierney that the assemblymember was “in full support of landmarking. We are only scratching the surface of what we need to do to preserve the existing historic character of the Lower East Side and East Village,” she said.

Carolyn Ratcliffe, a member of a Community Board 3 subcommittee dealing with historic landmarking, said the community board was basically in support of the historic district designation.

However, she added, “We also want the commissioners to take into consideration the concerns of the religious organizations who are opposed to this and work together with them.”

Andrew Berman, executive director of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation, an organization advocating for the historic district’s creation, stressed the importance of protecting the area as a symbol of the city’s mercantile history and to honor the waves of immigrants that have called the neighborhood home.

Berman also emphasized the East Village’s more recent bohemian past when the neighborhood nurtured artists, painters, writers and musicians in the late 20th century.

“This is one of the most historically significant neighborhoods in the city of New York,” he said. “But despite that, the East Village and Lower East Side is surprisingly lacking in landmark protection.”

Among the handful of speakers opposed to a historic landmark designation for the neighborhood was Father Christopher Calin, dean and chief executive officer in residence of the Russian Orthodox Cathedral of the Holy Virgin Protection, 59 E. Second St.

The priest angrily told the commissioners that his church opposes “the forced landmark designation.”

“Landmark designation would require government approval for any alternation affecting the exterior of the designated property, effectively transferring authority from the cathedral to the civil authority,” he protested. “Thus, the civil government would dictate the religious freedoms of the church, a violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.”

Also speaking out against the proposed historic landmark plan was Anthony Donovan, a member of a local interfaith organization who said he was only speaking for himself as a local resident

“It’s simple,” Donovan said. “If you are imposing these regulations upon others, then you pay the extra costs.”

Donovan was referring to a grant program operated by L.P.C. that provides from $5,000 to $50,000 for restoration work to eligible owners of landmarked buildings, according to Elisabeth de Bourbon, the commission’s spokesperson. However, funding is not guaranteed.

Donovan also noted that religious organizations could not afford the public-relations efforts being mounted by many preservation groups, such as G.V.S.H.P, which has been sending out press releases on the proposed historic district and which handed out orange-and-blue stickers to supporters at the hearing.

Meanwhile, local architect Leo Blackman said local religious institutions’ fears “are not founded in fact.” He said that several churches have been demolished in recent years to make way for new developments, such as St Ann’s on E. 12th St., which was replaced by an N.Y.U. student dorm.

“We learned that religious leaders cannot be trusted to protect their patrimony for all of us,” Blackman said.

Tierney, meanwhile, said there was no timeline yet for a final decision about the East Village-Lower East Side Historic District. The hearing did not end with a vote by L.P.C., and a date for a future vote or additional hearings has not been set.

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2 Responses to Preservationists and clergy clash over proposed E.V./L.E.S. district

  1. Thank you Villager.
    One correction, I did not stand as much against the plan, as much as For a process of inclusion that gets the repeated fears and distrust of those of the GVSHP addressed, and that need not leave only one narrow and too often punitive option: Landmarking or Historic Districting.
    There has not been worthy dialogue, rather press releases, and people reading prepared statements, largely from templates, from a podium without discussion. Hardly a problem solving process. The public not only are largely not aware of Historic Districting, they are fed a very narrow point of view by the PR of such groups, and our representatives, all well meaning and couched in compelling sticker rhetoric.
    This type of communication might be all fair if space was given to understanding the real concerns and the real alternative solutions available. In other words, real community building.

    We welcome the recommendation of Ms. Radcliffe. We can say to this point there has been not been real working with anyone on actual possible solutions that could bring us together. Lip service, yes. Let's re-dedicate ourselves to such a process. Count me in. I'm ready.

    Mr. Blackman repeats his derogatory comment at every meeting I've attended in the past two years on this subject. You might surmise the only ones to trust here is him and the GVSHP. It's so sad to me that one or two instances of distrust win the day to distrust all. Many of us spend most our lives trying so hard to build community and trust. It's way too easy and common to divide and feed fear. It's not doing the responsible work of gathering and communicating and working things out. We can do this.

    A banner stating “Clash” only promotes stuck positions, rather than a call for the public to gain a broader understanding of this issue. There wasn’t one developer present at the hearing. We can all stand against irresponsible developers. We do.
    Why not honor the best ideas of all? This issue concerns not simply religious institutions but any concerned with affordable housing, the preserving of cultures, of indigenous East Villagers, small local landowners vs corporate predatory landlords, and it concerns anyone who believes in getting a full spectrum of facts, then attempting true community building.

    If I may dare cite a non local New York Times article: It’s headline reads:
    “Interfaith Group Assails City’s Landmarks Law.”
    And opens: “Hundreds of churches and synagogues in the city are burdened with the obligation to preserve old buildings that were capriciously designated as landmarks, according to a study released yesterday by a group of New York religious leaders.” [Protestant, Catholic and Jewish in this case]

    The citywide study goes on to suggest that if a congregation wishes to manage without government interference, they should be able to do so and deny this forced designation. The report importantly concludes “that the city should be required to pay for all losses and expenses incurred by congregations as a result of the landmark procedures.”

    That recommendation, and many others makes sense, especially if "activist preservationist" groups would open to us brainstorming and reviewing with them solid, legal ways that would address their fears and concerns, as well as ours. This above article is over 30 years old, published in the NY Times, March 4th, 1982.

    I’m still believing this can change but so far our Community Board and our political representatives have failed, and lacked the leadership to recognize that 95% of us believe in the same things and have the common ground that can assure all. Why?

    For the past 150 years, who has been doing ALL the paying for preservation in our East Village? Who has been doing all the actual daily meticulous care and work of preservation in the East Village? GVSHP? The LPC? Our political reps? Not a one. Rather it’s been the very people all these have irresponsibly and hurtfully thrown into a small box called “oppostion”. This should never be rewarded. If we focus on what we're all for, we would move light years ahead.

  2. (continued from comment above, part 2) Submitting my personal statement to the LPC.

    Who would not sign a petition “Preserve our East Village” with accompanying photo of a tragedy of one of our lost buildings? We can all mourn that loss together, and prevent further losses. If I didn’t know more, I would be the first to sign. We can do this much better being together, leave the hate and distrust at the door, without the manuevering of pure political power and rhetoric. We welcome those who lobby for distrusting all, to get to know those they so distrust. Walk on over.

    If I may share, below was my modest 3 minute submitted presentation to the LPC at the hearing.

    “As so many good people, for the right reasons, through the decades have pleaded, I encourage you to enter and support a process of inclusion and reform that will strengthen the Landmark laws and truly help it be more reflective and relevant to the real needs of all of us in this room concerned with preservation.

    Imagine if community groups did not oppose the genuine concerns of others, and label others as the “opposition”, and instead applied basic community building measures, to build a coalition of the people who really care… for all here do care.

    In this dire economic crisis worsening for an under seige working middle class, imagine if instead of claiming both that the costs of repairing the smallest details in a Historic District are exaggerated, and that there are monies available to meet those costs, they would speak with hundreds of owners of landmarked buildings throughout NYC, as we have, to get the realities straight, and present those to the public. Several million dollars is hardly exaggerated for some work. One thing is simple, If you are imposing these regulations upon others, then you pay for the extra costs incurred.

    Facts bear this: Historic Districting clearly supports the very wealthy, banks, those institutions already well connected politically, as well as the corporate based, predatory landlords who easypass all costs onto the tenants.

    Talk has been full of distrust and simplistic rhetoric. Talk is cheap. Imagine if you put forward actual money? Not speak of caring, but show caring for those indigenous commuites, who day in and day out, for decades have done all the tremendous daily maintenance for these wonderful structures. They also truly are the ones who joined to save this neighborhood through the drug, crime and economic blights, making our streets safe for children and elderly once again.

    Imagine if we would support not only preserving facades, but these vibrant living histories trying to live behind them.

    IF we truly are claiming to preserve our history, we’d agree the greatest acheivement of our Lower East Side had been the worlds richest diversity of economic, social, political, religous, and cultural origins overcoming differences to join together for humankinds great social reforms, the light of which the whole world benefits from today. It has never been easy. That light is fading.

    What is needed today, in this room, and what we owe this legacy, is leadership for more of that same pioneering, courageous community spirit. We can do this. We must. Lets.”

    to LPC, 6/26/12

    This brief statement could not cover vital facts, rather make a general plea for those present. Yes, I beckon and encourage all to gather in real discussion, and certainly more in-depth reportage.

    Thank you.

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