Volume 76, Number 43 | March 21 - 27, 2007

Preservationists hail a landmark meeting by Beep

By Albert Amateau

Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer last week brought together preservation advocates and leaders of the borough’s 12 community boards to talk about ways to enhance Manhattan’s architectural and cultural heritage.

The March 14 meeting was seen as the beginning of a continuing effort to reform landmarks and historic district preservation and improve the way agencies — the Landmarks Preservation Commission, the Department of Buildings and the City Planning Department — work together on preservation.

“It was a strong meeting, with the most effective voices for preservation in the city,” Stringer said in a telephone interview this week.

“It was great to have Uptown talking with Downtown, East Side talking with West Side and all of them talking with me,” Stringer continued. “I’m a great fan of Landmarks Preservation Commissioner [Robert] Tierney and I’d like to see closer communication between the preservation community and the commission. You have to plan for preservation, so we’d like to get Landmarks and City Planning together on the issue, too,” the borough president added.

More than 30 advocates from the Village, Soho, Noho, Chelsea and the Upper East Side took part in the meeting that included members of all Manhattan community boards.

“It was a very good beginning for what I hope will be a working task force,” said Simeon Bankoff, executive director of the Historic Districts Council. “It was good to see more concern about preservation than we’ve seen in some time from a borough president.”

“I hope [Stringer] will expand what he started last week,” said Joyce Matz, a longtime preservation advocate and a member of Community Board 5, which covers the middle part of Manhattan from Union Square to Central Park S. She recalled that in 1985, when she was involved in saving the Beacon Theater on Broadway at 74th St. from a threatened interior alteration, Stringer was a legislative aide with then Assemblymember Jerrold Nadler and took part in the successful campaign to preserve the theater.

Community board members and preservation advocates at the March 14 meeting were concerned about bad coordination among city agencies involved in preservation.

Andrew Berman, executive director of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation, said that mistakes in Department of Buildings records about which buildings are protected by landmark or historic district designation are a major problem.

The Buildings Department is supposed to flag properties that are landmarked and tell property owners to get L.P.C. approval before a building or alteration permit is issued, Berman noted.

“We did a survey of landmarked buildings and we discovered that 15 percent of them were not flagged in Department of Buildings records,” said Berman. That means that owners could have received permits for work without L.P.C. approval, he noted.

After G.V.S.H.P. reported the omissions to the department, the society checked the records again a short time later and discovered that while most of them were corrected, other buildings that had been correctly identified as landmarks had the designation removed from Buildings Department records by mistake.

“It took several weeks to get that corrected and it raises the question of how prevalent are these mistakes throughout the city,” Berman said.

Lenore Norman, a member of Community Board 7, covering the Upper West Side, and former executive director of the Landmarks Commission and later of the Department of Buildings in the 1980s, agreed that miscues between Buildings and Landmarks were a serious problem. She recalled that she initiated the Department of Buildings’ practice of flagging landmarked buildings in 1985 when she left the Landmarks Commission and went to the Buildings Department.

Norman also said that reluctance of many clergymen and congregations to support landmark designation for culturally important church buildings was a major concern raised at the March 14 meeting. With smaller congregations, declining income and changing patterns of worship and ministry, the sale of church air rights and even the demolition of church buildings is an increasing threat, Norman observed.

Another Department of Buildings issue regarding landmarks is the subject of a new bill introduced into the City Council also on March 14 by Councilmember Rosie Mendez, who represents the East Village, part of the Lower East Side and the area up to E. 35th St. Berman described Mendez’s bill at the March 14 meeting and said it was a needed reform.

Co-sponsored by 18 councilmembers, Mendez’s bill would temporarily stop work authorized by permits secured by a property owner prior to a building’s landmark designation.

The bill is a response to an owner’s stripping decorative facade elements from the old P.S. 64 on E. Ninth St. immediately after the building received landmark designation last summer. The owner, Gregg Singer, had secured the permit from the Buildings Department about three years before designation and didn’t do the work until a few weeks after the building was landmarked last June.

Mendez said she was incensed at Singer’s action.

“It’s high time the Council closed the loophole allowing developers to destroy historic buildings when the Landmarks Preservation Commission has granted landmark status,” she said last week when she introduced the bill.

Under the Mendez bill, as soon as a building is landmarked, the department would suspend any previously issued work permit pending a hearing on whether any significant work had been done and any significant expense incurred. If there was significant work and expense involved, the permit would be valid and work could continue. If there was no significant construction and expense, the permit would be revoked and the project would be referred to the Landmarks Commission for a hearing on whether the work is appropriate for a landmarked property. The buildings permit would be reissued only after L.P.C. approval of a project.

“There are other reforms needed for landmarks administration,” said Ed Kirkland, a Chelsea resident and head of the Landmarks Committee of Community Board 4, which covers Chelsea and Clinton. For example, he asked, “How does Landmarks decide what’s an appropriate restoration for a historic building that was altered before it was designated a landmark?”

He noted that many row houses in Chelsea and the Village built in the early 1800s in the relatively simple Greek-revival style were altered later in the century with fancier Italianate additions. Kirkland questioned whether an owner should be allowed to restore a building to its earliest condition when it was landmarked with the later alterations in mind. He also questioned whether an owner should be allowed to remove a studio window added to the top floor of a row house in the 1920s. Such alterations are part of the cultural heritage of neighborhoods, Kirkland said.

Doris Diether, Community Board 2 Landmarks Committee member, said there were problems with what the Landmarks Commission staff decides in negotiations with property owners and what the full commission then decides after a public review. The L.P.C. provides for minor alterations on landmarked buildings to be decided between commission staff members and property owners. But changes considered major receive a full public hearing from the commission.

Diether said that often when preservation advocates go to the L.P.C for what they expect to be a hearing on a proposed change, they are told it’s off the agenda because the proposal was a minor change and decided by the staff. She said that last summer a proposed change to a historic district building on Astor Pl., where Astor Wines and Liquors was vacating a large ground-floor space, was negotiated by Landmarks staff members and the owner’s architect as a minor alteration.

“It was about signage and the appearance of the ground floor and I didn’t think it was minor,” Diether recalled.

Nevertheless, many preservationists and community board members at Borough President Stringer’s March 14 meeting said the L.P.C. should receive more support from the city.

Berman said G.V.S.H.P. is seeking more funding for the Landmarks Commission.

“Last year we were able to get $250,000 to the budget for Landmarks, a minor amount in relation to the entire city budget, but it was a lot for Landmarks. We want to add $1 million this year, which would bring Landmarks up to its 1991 level,” said Berman.


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