“It is the sense of the council that the standing of this city as a worldwide tourist center and world capital of business, culture and government cannot be maintained or enhanced by disregarding the historical and architectural heritage of the city and by countenancing the destruction of such cultural assets.” – New York City Council, April 6, 1965
As part of the Backlog95 initiative, the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) went through a vigorous examination of all the properties which had been lingering under consideration for designation for longer than 5 years. After an open public hearing process, LPC deliberately went through each property, discussing each individual merit, where it fit in the agency’s priorities, and whether the owner and/or the local council member was in favor of the designation. In the vast majority of cases, this last consideration trumped the first two.
To be clear, the LPC considered 95 sites as part of this initiative:
- Five were removed due to lack of merit;
- 60 were removed with no action – for reasons including questions regarding their relative significance, alterations that have reduced sites’ historical features, and other regulatory controls that could protect them… as well as owner and Council opposition, and;
- 30 were prioritized for designation (27 of which were actually designated).
To put it another way – the LPC only positively acted on approximately 28% of the properties which it had been considering for more than 5 years. It would then stand to reason that landmark designation does not seem to be a status which the LPC bestows haphazardly and consequently, the buildings which the agency actually does designate are eminently worthy of designation.
As part of the landmark designation process, the City Council has the power to hold hearings on landmark designations to deny, modify or support the designations. After that vote, the designation goes to the Mayor for final approval (the Mayor can overturn a Council veto but Council then has the final right to overrule the Mayor’s veto). The Council can make decisions at its own discretion; the members do not have to account for their votes in any justifiable manner, but the Council as a whole needs to follow its own process.
This brings us to the situation of tomorrow’s City Council subcommittee hearing. At a previous subcommittee hearing on Monday, February 27th, owners and stakeholders from three designated properties objected:
- Lakeman-Cortelyou Taylor House, c. 1684 – 1714
- The Protestant Reformed Dutch Church of Flushing (Bowne Street Community Church), c.1892
- Loew’s 175th Street Theatre (United Palace), c. 1929
These objections were based, essentially, on concerns about government oversight. Owners and tenants of all three properties spoke eloquently and passionately about their love of their old buildings and the pride they took in owning and using them. The Lakeman House and the movie theater had both been lovingly and sensitively restored under the current ownership and all three properties have been very well-maintained for years. There was a palpable pride evoked in being stewards of these historic properties and their importance to not only their owners but their communities was mentioned again and again. These were preservationists – not accidental but intentional ones who understood the inherent value of historic buildings. But none of them wanted their buildings to be landmarked.
There was concern about added costs to maintenance, but the real stumbling block seemed to be ideological. All three property owners felt that they were doing the right thing by their buildings and should be allowed to keep doing what they’re doing the way they’ve been doing it. The owner of the Loew’s even offered to craft a contract with the City promising to treat the property like a landmark as long as LPC stayed out of the picture (which is a generous but essentially meaningless offer which would need to be enforced by the courts, if at all).
The base issue is that these owners represent that they feel landmark designation is an inherent burden. This is very unfortunate and should be countered, in the long run, with education and incentives. Unfortunately, a City Council hearing is not the proper forum for that kind of conversation. At a Council hearing, the fate of the designation rests in the hands of the Council, whose members – by tradition – vote with the local representative. Council members tend to pay heed to local constituents, which is to be encouraged. However, it is the responsibility of every elected official to understand the purpose and meaning of adopted law.
New York City has a landmarks law which was adopted over 50 years ago by the City Council and has served our city well. It is not perfect, it is an added level of oversight, but it has demonstrably accomplished and continues to achieve its stated goals of strengthening economic activity, educating the public and fostering pride in our city. These are general goals which can seem distant from the specifics of an individual building but they are definite guidelines which should inform the Council’s decisions.
Especially when faced with the shoulder-shrugging reason of “I don’t wanna,” our elected officials must weigh the benefits of guaranteed preservation versus possible demolition in a rational and reasoned manner. The ultimate question is: should the existence of these three buildings be preserved in perpetuity? The Historic Districts Council thinks so.