Thirty of 95 backlogged items prioritized for 2016 designation votes

The Thomas-Lamb designed Loew’s 175th Street Theater in Washington Heights was prioritized for designation. Image credit: LPC

Some items will be removed from calendar due to political reality that designations will not be ratified by Council; others are found to be adequately protected so as to not require prioritization; others to lack significance that would merit immediate designation. On February 23, 2016, Landmarks made determinations on the disposition of 95 items added to Landmarks’ calendar before 2010, but never subjected to a vote on designation. In 2015 the commission had announced an initiative to clear the calendar of the backlogged items. Landmarks held a series of public hearings to give the public an opportunity to testify on the items, some of which had languished on Landmarks’ calendar for decades. At the meeting on February 23, 2016 commissioners voted to keep 30 items on the calendar for a vote on designation during 2016. The remaining 65 items will be decalendared. Landmarks’ determinations on all 95 items are listed in the associated chart.

At the meeting, commissioners heard staff recommendations on the items’ dispositions and voted on the recommendations in batches. Director of Special Projects and Strategic Planning Lisa Kersavage made the presentations on behalf of the staff. The staff recommended one of three actions for each of the items:

  •    Prioritize item for a vote on designation in 2016;

  •    Issue a “No Action Letter” which would remove the item from the calendar without prejudice, allowing it to be reconsidered in the future; or

  •    Remove the item from the calendar for lack of merit, which means the items have been determined to lack the requisite architectural, historical, or cultural significance for designation, or to have been demolished or substantially altered.

At the beginning of the meeting, Landmarks’ Counsel Mark Silberman stated that under the Landmarks Law, the commission has broad discretion in managing its calendar, establishing its priorities, and pursuing statutory goals. Silberman advised that Landmarks has ample precedent supportive of removing items from its calendar without bringing them to a vote before the commission.

Executive Director Sarah Carroll also addressed the commissioners, stating that the process to address the backlog had been done in consultation with Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, community boards, and advocacy groups. Carroll said, in determining which items to prioritize, the staff had sought diversity in geography, typologies, and cultural histories, and paid special attention to items in communities that are less well-represented in landmarks. In making its recommendations the commission’s staff also considered a building’s significance, the level of support by elected officials, particularly Council members, and testimony from property owners, community residents and advocates. Also taken into account was whether items were already subject to certain protections through other mechanisms. Carroll said 28 items were ultimately recommended for swift consideration for designation, approximately one third of the total backlogged items. Five items would be recommended for removal due to lack of merit, with the rest of the items recommended for removal by a no action letter.

The recommendations recognized that it is the custom for the City Council, which can ratify or reject a Landmark designation, to defer to the local Council member. A local Council member’s opposition to a given item would mean that Landmarks’ time and work in designating would almost certainly be futile.

The commission first considered a batch composed of Bronx items. The commission unanimously approved the staff recommendations, which included the prioritization of a partial-lot designation of the Immaculate Conception Church, excising the convent and priest’s residence, and an 1860 farmhouse at 65 Schofield Street. The Samuel D. Babcock House was removed for lack of merit, as staff found that it had been “far too altered” to merit status as an individual landmark.

In Brooklyn, commissioners accepted the recommendation that, because of the multitude of owners and layers of regulation of Greenwood Cemetery, a partial designation composed of three buildings owned by the cemetery was appropriate. Staff also recommended the prioritization of Williamsburg Trust Company Building despite the opposition of the church that now occupies the building.

Commissioner Adi Shamir-Baron voted against the staff recommendations because she believed the Coney Island Pumping Station should remain on the calendar. Staff recommended that the station be removed via a no action letter because it had been substantially altered, and was already partially protected as a City property with any work subject to review by the Public Design Commission.

In Queens, designation was prioritized for the Pepsi-Cola Sign overlooking the East River, though Landmarks cannot exert control over the content of signs. The company had entered into a private agreement with Buildings not to alter the lettering, the sign’s transparency, or the representation of a Pepsi bottle. In response to commissioner questions, Chair Meenakshi Srinivasan conceded that landmark designation of the sign would be “honorific” and in acknowledgement of public affection for the “beloved and iconic” advertising structure. Commissioner Michael Goldblum opined that the sign should be removed from the calendar as a non-priority “for consistency’s sake.” The Lydia Ann Bell and William Ahles House and Bowne Street Community Church will also be advanced for 2016 designation.

The Douglaston Historic District Extension will be removed from the calendar by no action letter because of the substantial opposition by property owners in the proposed district.

In Staten Island, a substantial number of buildings will be removed from the calendar due to opposition by Council Members Joe Borelli and Steven Matteo. The buildings included the Nicholas Killmeyer Store and Residence, the Richmond County Country Club, the 3833 Amboy Road House, and the School District Number 3 Building.

Staten Island’s Dutch Colonial Lakeman House was prioritized despite staff’s recommendation that it be decalendared. Image credit: LPC

Staten Island’s Dutch Colonial Lakeman House was prioritized despite staff’s recommendation that it be decalendared. Image credit: LPC

Staff also recommended the decalendaring of the Dutch Colonial Lakeman House due to alterations and likely Council member opposition. Commissioners, however, rejected the recommendation and insisted on its retention on Landmarks’ calendar. Commissioner Michael Goldblum stated that there were few buildings remaining from the early period of New York’s settlement, and the Lakeman House’s significance was worth making a “Pyrrhic” statement. Commissioner Michael Devonshire argued that almost all structures from the Dutch Colonial period have been altered in some way, but that did not make them any less precious.

Other items selected for prioritization included the Prince’s Bay Lighthouse and Keeper’s House and the Vanderbilt Mausoleum and Cemetery. At the October 22, 2015 hearing a representative of the Vanderbilt family spoke in support of the designation of the Mausoleum and surrounding area, which had been designed by Richard Morris Hunt and Frederick Law Olmstead.

The cottage in which Dorothy Day stayed at the Dorothy Day Historic Site has been demolished and will be decalendared for lack of merit. Silberman stated that Landmarks was working to have the site’s role in the life of Day and the history of the Catholic Worker somehow memorialized in any new development.

The commission’s Staten Island representative, John Gustafsson, reluctantly endorsed the recommendations, saying that numerous items have already been landmarked in other boroughs, and decried the lack of civic spirit in Staten Island. Gustafsson expressed his “fervent hope” that officials who viewed landmarking more positively would be elected to office in the future.

In Manhattan, staff recommended that ten items be retained on the calendar to proceed to a swift designation vote. Con Edison, the owner of the Stanford White-designed Interborough Rapid Transit Powerhouse in far west Midtown, opposed landmark designation because of fears that landmarking would hinder efficient operation. Staff determined, however, that the powerhouse merited designation

Bergdorf Goodman department store in Midtown Manhattan. Image credit: LPC

Bergdorf Goodman department store in Midtown Manhattan. Image credit: LPC

because of its architectural significance, and its historical importance as the largest powerhouse in the world at the time of its construction. Staff also recommended the prioritization of iconic Fifth Avenue department store Bergdorf Goodman, the designation of which had been opposed by its owners, and fiercely advocated for by community members and preservationists.

Commissioners struggled with staff’s recommendation to decalendar Union Square Park, despite the park having been significantly reconfigured from its initial design. Commissioner Goldblum attested that, despite modification, the park was still a cultural landmark of “top ten” significance, and of “incredible historical importance.” Commissioner Diana Chapin, however, balked at taking any action that would alter the Park’s current state, which she argued was “quite functional” for its public use. The commission voted to remove the Park by no action letter.

The designation of the Loew’s 175th Street Theater, an extravagantly ornamented building designed by prominent architect of theaters and movie houses Thomas Lamb, was opposed by the church congregation now occupying the structure. The congregants argued that they had been good stewards of the building, and did not require the onus of Landmarks oversight. Staff recommended the former theater be prioritized, and Chair Srinivasan stated that the commission will assist in ensuring that the church can meet its programmatic needs while preserving the building and without straining its resources.

At the February 23, 2016 meeting, the commission elected to prioritize the designation of the Edgar J. Kaufman Conference Rooms, Lecture Hall and Elevator Lobby. Designation, however, will be contingent on a legal determination that the rooms meet the standard for public accessibility required for interior landmarks.

Commissioners rejected the recommended removal of the Excelsior Power Company Building in Lower Manhattan. The building, which dates to the 1840s, has been repeatedly altered, including a roof addition. Staff found that the modifications mitigated the building’s significance, and that it should not be made a priority. Commissioner Shamir-Baron stated that alterations did not unduly impact the structure’s visual impact, and that it was inherently significant as a “workhorse building” of the 19th century.

Staff recommended the removal of several Broadway-area theaters and their interiors from Landmarks’ calendar, as they were adequately protected under a binding long-term redevelopment agreement with New 42nd Street established in the 1980s.

Chair Srinivasan stated that the first meeting when votes on designation will be cast will take place on April 12, 2016.

LPC: Special Public Meeting for the Backlog Initiative, Citywide (Feb. 23, 2016).

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

One thought on “Thirty of 95 backlogged items prioritized for 2016 designation votes

  1. Since BOTH live in NYC, love to see H CLINTON, D TRUMP get MUCH MORE INVOLVED in promoting hometown improvements and cleanups–City still TRAVEL+LEISURE’s #1 “America’s Dirtiest City” for uncontrolled, excess waste, air and water pollution.

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