Volume 73, Number 31 | December 3 - 9, 2003


Council subcommittee, property owners challenge Market district

By Albert Amateau

The proposed Gansevoort Market Historic District, beloved by preservation advocates and recently designated by the Landmarks Preservation Commission, came under fire this week at a City Council Landmarks Subcommittee hearing.

Councilmember Simcha Felder of Brooklyn, who heads the subcommittee and conducted the hearing, which marks the final stage in the approval process for the district, made it clear that he had major problems with the district and appeared to have serious reservations about the city’s 38-year-old landmark preservation law.

“I’m opposed entirely to the landmark process being used in any way to limit development,” he said, adding, “It should do what it’s supposed to do.”

During the course of the four-and-a-half-hour hearing on Monday, Felder reiterated his opposition to anything that limits the rights of owners to do what they want with their property. At one point, he drew a dollar from his pocket and said, “If I have a dollar and someone tells me how much I can spend, that’s taking away my right to use it,” he said.

Despite the assertion by Ronda Wist, executive director of the L.P.C., that landmarking is not intended to stop development, Felder was not convinced.

Andrew Berman, executive director of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation, who testified at the Dec. 1 hearing, said later that Felder had made “a fundamental and disconcerting challenge to the basic premise of landmarking and even of zoning.”

Doris Diether, speaking as a member of Community Board 2, which supports the Gansevoort designation, pointed out that the city’s zoning law, enacted by the city in 1916, sets land-use rules and floor-to-area ratios for development as limits to what an owner can do with his property. Felder seemed interested, but told Diether, “You can educate me later.”

Councilmember Christine Quinn, a member of the Landmarks Subcommittee whose Council district includes the proposed historic district, pointed out that the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 30 years ago that landmarking was a legitimate government function in a case involving designation of Grand Central Terminal.

The Gansevoort Market Historic District, which the Landmarks Preservation Commission designated in September by a unanimous vote and the Department of City Planning approved a month later, must also receive final approval from the City Council. That approval was deemed likely, especially since Quinn represents — and is an enthusiastic supporter of — the proposed historic district and is a member of the Landmarks Subcommittee.

But the challenge made by Felder seems to cast doubt on what previously had been considered a sure thing. The Landmarks Subcommittee is scheduled to vote on the district next Tues., Dec. 9, to be followed by a full Land-Use Committee vote before the end of this month and a full Council final vote in January. In general, Council committees tend to vote in accord with subcommittee recommendations, and the full Council tends to follow committee recommendations.

Also challenging the historic district designation were the Meilman family, formerly in the meat wholesale business and longtime owners of six buildings on the north side of W. 14th St. between Ninth and 10th Aves. on the northern border of the proposed district. The Meilmans are seeking at least to have the north side of 14th St., where their property is located, dropped from the district.

Michael Meilman, his nephew, Richard Meilman, and his son Cliff, told the committee that landmarking would prevent them from developing their two-and-three-story buildings to the properties’ maximum allowable F.A.R. of five, which could allow buildings of about seven stories. Cliff Meilman said that during the past 12 years since the family quit the meat business, they resisted lucrative offers from sex-related businesses until more socially responsible commercial tenants began moving into the formerly raffish Meat Market district.

Along with their lawyer, Deirdre Carson, the Meilmans declared that the historic district designation was indeed intended to limit development. Carson also said that the architecture in the district is not distinguished and many buildings have no style at all. She said a prominent architect, whom she did not name, had characterized the district as “garbage.”

Quinn bristled at the remark. “I find it offensive that any part of my district is called garbage,” she said. Carson later apologized, saying that the Meilmans also took exception to the “garbage” epithet.
The Real Estate Board of New York also submitted testimony saying that the Gansevoort Market was not worthy of designation because the district does not have a unified architectural style.

Last October, Michael Romanoff, another former meat wholesaler and a major property owner in the district, testified against the Gansevoort Market Historic District at the City Planning Commission on the same grounds as the Meilmans, but he did not appear or submit written testimony on Monday.

But several property owners and the union that represents workers at the 60 or so meatpackers remaining in the district submitted testimony supporting designation.

Representatives for Manhattan Borough President C. Virginia Fields, State Assemblymember Deborah Glick and Representative Jerrold Nadler testified in favor of the designation.

Two hours into the hearing, Jo Hamilton, a co-founder of Save the Gansevoort Market, and g.v.s.h.p.’s Berman had the chance to speak in favor of the district, which extends from the north side of W. 14th St. to Horatio St., roughly between Ninth Ave. and Washington St.

“In spite of its slightly gritty looks, the Gansevoort Market Historic District embodies exactly what the landmarks law was intended to protect — areas of special character or special historical or aesthetic interest or value,” said Berman.

Major changes in a designated historic district require a review by L.P.C. and a certificate of appropriateness, although the Landmarks staff may review minor changes in a district to expedite the process.

At some point after designation, the commission may issue guidelines to give owners a sense of what the commission might deem appropriate. Quinn on Monday urged that L.P.C. issue those guidelines soon, but Wist said it might take anywhere from eight months to two years to develop guidelines. “Hopefully it could be closer to eight months,” said Quinn.

When the district was designated in September, commissioners remarked that the success of the district — preserving its character while encouraging appropriate development — would depend on how well the commission and staff guide development.

Responding to questions from Felder, Wist noted that there is no as-of-right development in a historic district because all changes are subject to either staff or commission review as to whether they conform to zoning.


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