John Belle and Richard Southwick on 40 Years of Practicing Before Landmarks

Fresh from a business trip in Europe, John Belle, founding partner of Beyer Blinder Belle Architects & Planners LLP, and Richard Southwick, partner and director of the firm’s preservation department, recently sat down for an afternoon with CityLand. Joined by Olivia, Belle’s mild-mannered golden retriever, the two architects discussed the City’s Landmarks Preservation Commission and the impact of preservation on land use.

Self-described as “one of those immigrants,” Belle was born in Cardiff, Wales, and still retains his accent. After graduating from London’s Architectural Association School and working in Massachusetts for José Luis Sert, Belle moved to New York City in 1963 because of the City’s energy and feeling of social mobility. He loves the City because it is both peaceful and constantly in a state of flux, through immigrants like him arriving daily. Southwick, a native upstate New Yorker, graduated from SUNY Albany with a B.A. in studio art, before attending Columbia University Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation. While in graduate school during the mid- 1970s, Southwick was part of the Department of City Planning’s Urban Design Group, working on such projects as the Second Avenue Subway.

Land use and preservation. Belle argues that Landmarks can have a greater impact on the City than the City Planning Commission, pointing to the designation of so many historic districts throughout the City. The overriding feature of these districts, according to Belle, is not so much any particular architectural style, but rather a certain “quality of life” that runs throughout each district’s “community, streets, and open spaces.” Belle, however, worries that this quality of life is currently endangered, as the “renewal and expansion of public amenities in the City has not kept pace” with the “explosive” growth of private development.

Southwick sees zoning as “the strongest preservation tool,” and credits Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg for designating several historic districts throughout the City. The spike in historic districts under the Bloomberg Administration, says Southwick, has prompted significant increases in Landmarks’ staff, which, in turn, will allow the agency to consider preserving other historic buildings and neighborhoods.

All hail the Chair. Belle and Southwick credit former Landmarks Chair Jennifer Raab for modernizing the agency. According to Southwick, Raab codified a series of rules for Landmarks’ staff and commissioners, so that “mundane” decisions could be kept off the commissioners’ calendar, freeing up time to tackle significant issues. Belle and Southwick explain that Raab’s efforts led to Landmarks’ current rules-based approval process, which is more “predictable” and “consistent” than preservation agencies for other cities within the United States or abroad.

For example, Belle and Southwick point to their preservation of the Red Star Line buildings for the Museum of Migration in Antwerp, the point of embarkation for millions of immigrants destined for Ellis Island. They believe that, compared to New York City, Antwerp’s approval process is defined less by rules and more by the personalities of bureaucrats, because in Antwerp a preservation project is handled by one minister who is assigned to grant ongoing approvals after working intimately with the project’s architects.

Yet Belle and Southwick do feel that Landmarks is defined, to a large extent, by the Chair and his or her personality. Nevertheless, Belle is quick to point out that the “quality and expertise” of the Landmarks’ staff is central to its evolution, providing a necessary degree of consistency and reliability. Indeed, Belle holds Landmarks’ staff in high regard, praising them for their ability to understand that buildings “have lives that evolve.”

Preservation and the future. Southwick fears that the slowdown in the economy could have a detrimental impact on preservation because of higher labor and materials costs. In fact, he would like to see more preservation tax incentives to ensure preservation emerges intact from any economic downturn.

Southwick is able to see some good in the development slowdown, believing that it could “buy time for threatened buildings.” Echoing Southwick’s comments, Belle predicts that preservation may, in fact, offer a hedge against a decline in new development.

As Belle was once told, a building’s life is defined as “use, reuse, misuse, disuse and refuse.” In Belle’s words, “part of our mission is to make sure we don’t get to the end of that quote.” — Jonathan Reingold


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