Subcommittee Delays Action on Three Landmark Designations

Loew’s 175th Street Theater in Manhattan’s Washington Heights. Image Credit: LPC.

Six designations sent to full Council where they were ratified; three items held over for further deliberation. On February 27, 2017, City Council’s Subcommittee on Landmarks, Public Siting, and Maritime Uses heard testimony and voted on the items designated at the Landmarks Preservation Commission’s last meeting devoted to the backlog initiative. The designated properties were introduced to the Subcommittee by Landmarks’ Lisa Kersavage and Lauren George. The Subcommittee approved designations for six of the items, but laid over three items for further consideration in instances where the property owners objected to designation. The three items not advanced to the Land Use Committee and full Council were the Lakeman-Cortelyou House, the Loew’s 175th Street Theater, and the Protestant Reformed Dutch Church of Flushing.

Prior to hearing public testimony, Council Member Steven Matteo discussed the designation of the Lakeman-Cortleyou House in New Dorp, Staten Island. The House dates to the 17th century, with the oldest part of the building constructed of fieldstone, and possesses a gambrel roof. Commissioners at Landmarks were advised that designation would likely be overturned at the Council level, but nonetheless awarded the property landmarks status due to its antiquity and rarity.

Council Member Matteo stated that the house had been in the owner’s family for generations, and the owner had been an excellent steward of the property. He stated that landmarking would make maintenance of the property more difficult and expensive for the owner, on whose side the Council should err. He said this was not a case of an “absentee owner,” and there was no necessity for the “added burden” of Landmarks oversight.

The Lakeman-Cortelyou House’s owner, George Kirchoffer, testified that landmarking would limit his use and control of the property, and possibly prevent the viable operation of his business. He said his maintenance and restoration of the property demonstrated that the “constraint” of Landmarks oversight was unnecessary.

Historic Districts Council Executive Director Simeon Bankoff testified in support of designation, noting that the house was one of four surviving Dutch Colonial houses on Staten Island, and landmarking would enshrine the owner’s work in maintaining and restoring the property. Representatives of the Municipal Art Society and the New York Landmarks Conservancy also urged the Council to affirm the designation.

Regarding the Loew’s 175th Street Theater in Manhattan’s Washington Heights, Council Member Ydanis Rodriguez said he had discussed the matter with the building’s owners, the United Palace, who operate the former theater as a church and performance venue, as well as community members. United Palace had opposed designation of the ornate Thomas Lamb-designed theater at the Landmarks hearing. Rodriguez stated that he was still uncertain as to whether he would vote for designation or not. He said that preservation of the building was important to the community, but he was waiting to see the owner’s plan for the property before making a determination.

United Palace CEO Heather Shea testified that the Landmarks review process “adds time and cost” to any work done on the building, and they had been advised by other owners of landmarked properties that the process is “burdensome, complicated and annoying.” She said the organization had maintained the property well for nearly 50 years, and had no plans for compromising the building’s architectural integrity. She asked Council members to rescind the designation, and said United Palace would agree to memorialize the protection of the building in some manners that would allow them to retain full control of the property. She noted that as a religious non-profit, the organization could not avail itself of capital funding from the City. United Palace Executive Director Mike Fitelson detailed some of the organization’s cultural programming, and said the building would continue to “stand and serve” without Landmarks’ oversight. He said the family owning the property, the Eikerenkoetters, felt that the government was “encroaching on the stewardship they provided.”

Vivian Ducat of Manhattan Community Board 12 called the former theater an “important symbol of the community,” and said its designation would increase “positive attention” to Washington Heights. She testified that United Palace had “mischaracterized” the burden of landmarking. Andrea Goldwyn spoke of the New York Landmarks Conservancy’s Sacred Sites Program, which offers grants and professional guidance to religious institutions owning historic structures. A representative of Inwood Preservation said the building was the neighborhood’s “pride and joy” in urging that the designation be upheld. Area resident Sara Fisher said Loew’s Theater was one of the neighborhood’s “most beautiful assets,” deserving of protection.

The Subcommittee also held over a vote on the Protestant Reformed Dutch Church of Flushing. At the Landmarks hearing, designation was ardently supported by community members, but opposed by representative of the Bowne Street Community Church, which now occupies the building. Church representatives said the congregation was concerned about costs associated with landmarking, and its controlling board had voted against endorsing designation.

Simeon Bankoff testified that the Church had raised its position after consultation with advocacy organizations and elected officials. The Municipal Art Society’s Tara Kelly stated that the church had roots dating to the founding of New Netherland as a Dutch colony.

Keng Chen, of the Church’s governing board, said the board supported landmarking, but the designation was too extensive, and should be limited to a smaller footprint that would not encompass the entire structure. He said the portion of the building occupied by offices, meeting rooms, and a social space should be eliminated from the designation, or it would be “unreasonable.” He claimed that portion of the building was not original and lacked historical significance. Pastor Aaron Chen said the largely immigrant congregation could not bear the costs associated with landmarking, should the designation extend beyond the central nave and tower. A Church member also expressed concern about financial obligations the congregation would be responsible for under designation.

Subcommittee Chair Peter Koo, who represents the district in which the Church lies, did not offer an opinion or indicate how he would vote.

Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer spoke at the meeting in support of the designation of the Manhattan items. She said all the items met a “very high threshold” for landmarking, and that the Council’s affirmation of the designations would represent the “completion of a great undertaking.” She identified the protection of the Loew’s 175th Street Theater as a particular priority, saying that northern Manhattan was under-represented in landmark designations.

Members of the Subcommittee voted in favor of the designations of the Neo-Grec cast-iron 183-195 West Broadway Building in Tribeca, St. Barbara’s Roman Catholic Church in Bushwick, Brooklyn,  the 19th-century Excelsior Steam Power Plant in Lower Manhattan, the Bergdorf Goodman building on Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue, the 412 East 85th Street House, a rare wood-framed house on the Upper East Side, and the Parks Department-owned Brougham Cottage on Staten Island. The Land Use Committee affirmed the designations the following day, with the full Council ratifying the designations on March 1st.

If the full Council does not affirm or reject the designations of the three laid-over items by April 18, Landmarks’ determinations remain intact by default.

Council: Subcommittee on Landmarks, Public Siting and Maritime Uses (Feb. 27, 2017) (ULURP Nos. N170207HKK, N170208HKK, N170202HKM, N170203HKM, N170204HKM, N170206HKM, N170209HKQ, N170210HKM, N170211HKM).

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

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