Commission Held First of Four Special Hearings to Address Backlog

Landmarks Preservation Commission. Credit: LPC.

Landmarks Preservation Commission. Credit: LPC.

Wide support voiced for designation of Coney Island pumping Station; potential extension to Douglaston Historic District and individual designation of Queens Apartment complex and religious structures proved contentious. On October 8, 2015, the Landmarks Preservation Commission held the first of four hearings meant to address the backlog of items on the Commission’s calendar added prior to 2010. Twenty-nine items were considered, in three groupings of multiple items clustered by borough. Each speaker had three minutes to testify for each batch, rather than on individual items. At the meeting, Landmark heard testimony on one batch of items in the Bronx, one in Brooklyn, and one in Queens.

The special hearings are intended to remedy a situation that had brought attention to Landmarks processes. The City Council is now considering legislation that would impose timelines on the designation process, making it similar to the ULURP procedures governing zoning and other land use in the City. The Society for the Architecture of the City’s Christabel Gough testified that research files for the items made available on Landmarks’ web site demonstrated that the undisposed-of items were not due to “any kind of procrastination or failure of efficiency at the agency,” but due to the political blocking of designations at the Board of Estimate or City Council, or to avoid litigation.

Joseph Rosenberg, of the Catholic Community Relations Council spoke in opposition to the four items on the calendar owned by New York dioceses: the Immaculate Conception Church of the Blessed Virgin Mary in the Bronx’s Melrose neighborhood, the Brooklyn Spanish-Mission-Revival St. Barbara’s Roman Catholic Church, St. Augustine’s Roman Catholic Church and Rectory in Park Slope, and the Old Calvary Cemetery Gatehouse in Queens. Rosenberg testified that designation of the properties would add “truly burdensome” costs to the Church, straining “meagre resources.”

The Reverend Francis Skelly, of the Immaculate Conception, said the parish did not have the resources to maintain the church as a landmark, and the money would be better spent on other needs in the South Bronx community. A Historic Districts Council representative noted that the church was built to service the Bronx’s large German immigrant population, and “astonishing remain intact,” “through decades and waves of immigration.” Council Member Rafael Espinal opposed the designation of Saint Barbara’s.

The New York Landmarks Conservancy called the Old Calvary Gatehouse “architecturally significant, highly intact, and worthy of designation,” while the Historic Districts Council found St. Augustine’s “one of the most elaborate and architecturally significant Roman Catholic churches in Brooklyn.”

State Senator Tony Avella decried the process that allowed only three minutes to address multiple items under consideration for designation, as they were all too important to be given such short shrift. Avella spoke in strong support of all the Queens items, saying the First Reformed Church was the property most deserving of Landmarks recognition in the entire borough, and the Lydia Ann Bell and J. William Ahles House’s designation had the full support of the community. Avella stated that the majority of property owners in the proposed extension to the Douglaston Historic District supported designation, that the extension was the “entrance to the historic district,” and he exhorted Landmarks to “do the right thing by the borough of Queens.”

A representative of Council Member Paul Vallone, however, read a statement in opposition to the extension’s designation, and said it was opposed by the local community board as well, but expressed a willingness to support the designation of the individual items within the area. A property owner in the district said he did not wish to relinquish his property rights for the cause of historic preservation, and said he had faced harassment from designation proponents. Property owner Roger White said designation was opposed by the “overwhelming majority” of property owners in the district, and said zoning was better mechanism to prevent inappropriate development. The extension was supported by members of the Douglaston Little Neck Historical Society, who said the majority of residents endorsed designation, and preservationist organizations.

Representatives of the Bowne Street Community in Flushing Queens said the congregation supported designation, but requested help in acquiring resources to maintain the building to Landmarks’ standards. A representative of Council Member Peter Koo also spoke in support of the church’s landmarking.

The Pepsi Cola Sign overlooking the East River from Long Island City Queens, received support of the Queens Preservation Council, whose representative called it “an icon to many generations in New York.” PepsiCo’s Peter Wilcox testified to the company’s maintenance of the sign and its importance to the corporate identity of the company, but opposed landmarking of the display sign, which he called “unnecessary.”

Representatives of Brooklyn’s 478-acre Greenwood Cemetery, originally considered for landmarking in 1981, testified to the impracticalities of designating an active cemetery with thousands of plots with different owners. Cozen O’Connor attorney Ken Fisher noted that cemetery grounds and monuments were already regulated by State law. The New York Landmarks Conservancy’s Andrea Goldwyn agreed that designation of the entire site was impracticable, but suggested that the cemetery’s chapel, as well as the Fort Hamilton Parkway Gatehouse, be considered for designation.

The pastor of the Ukrainian Church in Exile Holy Trinity Cathedral, formerly the Williamsburg Trust Company Building, opposed designation of the building. He said the 1905 building would have been demolished if the church had not occupied it in the 1960s, and that the congregation had no plans to alter the structures exterior. He said the church was supported solely by donations, and that designation would have a “negative psychological impact” on parishioners. A representative of Council Member Antonio Reynoso read a statement in support of designation, for the former bank’s historical and architectural significance.

Controversy surrounded the Fairway Apartments, a1930s Moderne complex in Jackson Heights, Queens. Ken Fisher, representing the owners, stated that the apartments did not rise to the level of quality necessary for an individual landmark, and called its style “derivative.” Fisher noted that the complex could have easily been included in the Jackson Heights Historic District, but was omitted from the 1993 designation. Former State Senator and Council Member John Sabini testified that the building did not possess any significance within the community. One of the owners testified that designation would increase costs for tenants, and that the majority of residents opposed landmarking. Tenants at the hearing alleged that the apartments’ owners had tricked residents into signing petitions opposing designation under false pretenses.

The previous owner of the Lady Moody-Van Sicklen House, the only remaining 18th century stone farmhouse in Brooklyn, said she had opposed designation because when first approached she was dealing with significant personal issues and had not understood the process and what designation signified. She said she had now come to understand that the building should have been landmarked “a long time ago.” Eric Lerardi, of the Gravesend historical society, said the building would already be protected by Landmarks if it were in Manhattan.

Wide support was voiced for the designation of the 1937 Art Deco Coney Island Pumping Station. Council Member Mark Treyger said the station deserved recognition both for it “invaluable utilitarian service” in fighting fires in the neighborhood, as well as for its architecture. Treyger wished to see the building’s interior renovated for a public “recreational or artistic” use. Merryl Kafka of the New York State Marine Education Association noted that the building had endured “40 years of City abandonment” and urged Landmarks to make the station the first individual landmark in Coney Island outside of the amusement area. Sean Khorsandi testified that that the station was architect Irwin Chanin’s only public work, though he was prominent for his hotel and theater buildings, and an interesting outlier in a “substantial portfolio.”

Landmarks will accept written testimony on the items until October 22, 2015.

LPC: Special Public Hearing for the Backlog Initiative (Oct. 8, 2015).

By: Jesse Denno (Jesse is a full-time staff writer at the Center for NYC Law)

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