Wednesday, November 15, 2006

NYC LPC: greed is good

Mr. Tierney said he was in “active discussions” with the Department of Buildings, urging it to develop a system that would delay rulings on building permit applications for buildings that are historic, but not designated as landmarks, allowing the commission time to consider stepping in.

That Mr. Tierney would be Robert Tierney, Chair of the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission, and that paragraph comes near the end of an article in today’s New York Times about the split decision made by the LPC regarding two historic buildings on the Upper West Side. The LPC extended landmarks protection to one, The New York Cab Company building, at Amsterdam and 75th, but, by an 8-2 vote, declined to protect another, the old Dakota Stable, at Amsterdam and 77th.

Both buildings were part of New York’s historic “stable row,” and were both built in the 1890’s, so why was landmark status granted to one and not to the other? Quite simply, because when the move to landmark the Dakota Stable site gained steam, the developer that owned the building accelerated removal of its historic elements.

In order to thwart the move to landmark the stable, the developer destroyed what they thought most LPC members would see as worth preserving before the commission could rule. And their strategy worked.

What happened to the old Dakota Stable is becoming the norm as New York City races pell-mell toward what Mayor Bloomberg calls “revitalization.” I have a different word for it: greed.

Rather than honor the beauty of NYC’s historic building stock, renovating and repurposing, and making really handsome amounts of cash, developers opt for leveling lots and throwing up much bigger buildings—so that they can make absolutely obscene amounts of cash. All of this is done, alas, with the tacit (or not-so-tacit) blessing of the city’s elected officials, whose pockets and campaign coffers developers continuously fill.

Just such a scenario played out this spring in SoHo. As readers of this blog will remember, I was involved in trying to save the beautiful and architecturally significant Tunnel Garage. But, as neighborhood and national support for landmarking the garage grew, Donald Zucker Organization, developers of the site, rushed to demolish the building. (Now, with a vacant lot, Zucker fixer Bob Esnard—as a former deputy mayor, a man as politically well-connected as he is consistently dishonest—is seeking permission to dig four stories down and build nine stories up, citing what buildings law calls “hardship.”)

Of course, when Mr. Tierney talks of developing a system to save historic buildings, he himself is being a little dishonest. As Chairman of the LPC, Tierney has authority over a process called “calendaring.” A building that is calendared is placed on a list of sites to be considered for landmarks protection pending a hearing before the Commission. As I understand it, the Department of Buildings is loath to issue permits for alteration or demolition for sites that are calendared. If Robert Tierney wants to protect a building, he has the power to calendar it. It would then be up to the DoB and the City to enforce the laws and severely punish developers that fudge or break buildings code.

In fact, one LPC member who voted for granting protection to the Dakota Stable, Christopher Moore, said the city needs to “draw a line in the sand” to show developers that they can’t get away with such smarmy tactics anymore.

Unfortunately, that doesn’t seem to be the direction in which most of the Landmarks Preservation Commission and the City are moving. With so much money too be made on this kind of slash-and-burn real estate, developers can afford to flout the law, maybe even incur a fine or two, on their way to doing pretty much whatever they want. With enough spare cash left over for campaign contributions, this seems to be the “system” that is here to stay.

Don’t believe me? Just read on through to the last paragraph of the Times article:

Jennifer Givner, a spokeswoman for the Department of Buildings, said late yesterday that Patricia J. Lancaster, the buildings commissioner, was involved in the discussions with the landmarks officials. But she said it was unclear if a new policy would be developed.


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