Friday, March 27, 2015

Community Testimony on the Proposed Zoning for Quality and Affordability Text Amendment

Preservation Groups, Community Leaders and Elected Officials meet for a
Press Conference in front of City Hall, March 25, 2015 (Photo: Sean Khorsandi)

Friends of the Upper East Side
Re: Zoning for Quality and Affordability Text Amendment (CEQR no. 15DCP104Y)

As any good preservationist would, I will start with a bit of history. In 1985, our founder David I. Karabell and first president, Halina Rosenthal wrote to our members:

With the passage of the new R8-B zoning... [there] is a guarantee of the survival for the low-rise and small scale of the precious mid blocks which were constantly being endangered by the growing encroachment upon them of tall buildings out of context with their neighbors, dwarfing them and casting longer shadows on the streets where we live.

For FRIENDS, this zoning change is the culmination of nearly three years of active and often 'round-the-clock work which began on January 28, 1982, when we asked the City Planning Commission (CPC) for a zoning change which would replace the 1961 zoning regulations that gave the license, as-of-right, to consume and destroy our mid blocks and to line them with towers. We asked the CPC to give us instead a good and reasonable alternative. This quest resulted in the R8-B zoning just passed...

Once again, over 30 years later, we are calling upon City Planning to give us a good and reasonable alternative.

We need an alternative to the proposed undoing of contextual districts which make up 64% of the Upper East Side.

We need an alternative to the dismantling of the Sliver Law, another hard-fought protection of our neighborhood's low-rise character.

We need an alternative to the elimination of existing affordable housing. In our contextual zones on the Upper East Side, 36% of parcels include rent regulated units. Can City Planning explain how it has come to the conclusion that demolition of buildings containing affordable units will not be incentivized by this proposal? Has City Planning analyzed the requirement of affordable units to be built on site in these new, taller buildings?

We need an alternative that anticipates future construction methods, and not just the current "standard." Has City Planning analyzed building types that may perhaps be preferable to what is on offer today? How does modular housing age?

We need an in-depth, citywide survey of historic and cultural resources, along with careful study of each and every neighborhood's individual character and sense of place. How does City Planning intend to accomplish such a large scale undertaking?

We need thoughtful consideration of each neighborhood's unique qualities. A block in Yorkville is different from one on the Upper West Side which in turn is distinct from one in Flatbush. Has City Planning looked at the effects this zoning could have on different neighborhoods?

We need worst case scenario evaluations of not just one building prototype on one block, but all the prototypes on all the blocks throughout all of the city. Indeed, the cumulative effect is the worst case scenario. Has City Planning analyzed the consequences, if, for example, an entire block is rebuilt?

This proposal touts the desirability of historic buildings, and seeks to emulate some of their best qualities like variation, design, and "streetscape-improving conditions." And yet this plan could result in the destruction of those model buildings on a massive scale, effectively eviscerating our neighborhoods.

We need City Planning to give us a good and reasonable alternative to this plan.

Thank you for your time; we will be submitting additional questions.

Tara Kelly
Executive Director

East Village Community Coalition
Re: 'Zoning for Quality and Affordability,' CEQR No. 15DCP104Y

Dear Director Dobruskin:

On behalf of the East Village Community Coalition, I would like share with you concerns we have regarding the scope of the environmental impact assessment for the "Zoning for Quality and Affordability” (CEQR No. 15DCP104Y) plan. The proposed scope threatens to undo long-term community planning achievements in the East Village and we urge that the scope be expanded to consider existing neighborhood protections.

The needs and conditions in this community must be analyzed when considering a change to our individually crafted rezoning. In 2005, the community initiated a plan that would become the East Village/ Lower East Side rezoning resulting in the low-scale, high-density character that is both historic and efficient. This 197-a proposal emerged from a collaborative process involving a range of community stakeholders. Implemented in 2008, the grassroots plan incorporated consensus terms for height limits, floor area ratio, use, and inclusionary housing incentives. Loosening the height limits without the promise of affordable housing is a betrayal of that community process. It is critical that the scope of the environmental review consider protecting our hard-fought height limits as well as the Quality Housing program adopted at the time.

The changes to contextual districts if implemented retroactively may not yield the intended results in the East Village. The neighborhood retains many affordable housing units and local groups are robust in their defense of existing units and effort to produce more. Permitting vertical extensions must be also considered in the context of the neighborhood. In too many cases, penthouse construction atop existing buildings has degraded living conditions for existing tenants while not resulting in new affordable development. We urge that the scope consider the impact that taller development will have on neighborhood character, shadows on narrow streets and greenspaces including more than thirty community gardens, the existing housing stock, and other historic resources.

I strongly urge you to include current height limits in contextual zones and existing neighborhood protections within the scope of the environmental review.

Thank you for your attention to this matter.

Sara Romanoski
Managing Director

Dave Holowka, Architect and Chelsea resident

As an architect, I have to tell you the rationale for higher floor-to-floor levels in this proposal based on so-called “changes in best practices” in construction doesn’t make sense.

The proposal cites modular and concrete plank construction specifically. It says contextual zoning’s typical building depth of 65 feet isn’t achievable with concrete plank because of 30-foot span limitations, and that building depths should economically use two spans to achieve a new standard depth of 60 feet, with lost area recouped by adding allowed floors. I called two concrete plank manufacturers: Molin Concrete Products in Minnesota said its 8-inch deep planks can be reinforced and tensioned to span longer than 30 feet for not a lot of money; Oldcastle Precast of Selkirk, NY, said their span limit for 8-inch deep planks is 32 feet, not 30. Adding 6 inches front-and-back for brick facing and an air space results in the now-standard 65-foot building depth. Only slightly more expensive 10-inch deep planks can span much farther. No one says you have to span perpendicular to the street or use concrete plank in the first place. There are countless ways to make floor structure thinner or stronger even in modular construction. It’s what engineers and architects are there for. To buy into this proposal’s arguments, you’d have to believe advances in construction technology have introduced rigid limitations rather than the efficiency and flexibility demanded by free market competition. Does anyone believe sprinklers eat up enough space to warrant adding fifteen feet to the height of a building?

Zoning shouldn’t be driven by construction details at any rate, and never was. Zoning should be about urban-scale issues of light and air and compatibility of building forms, which this proposal conveniently ignores. Affordable housing is a zoning concern, too, but of a categorically different kind. It would be one thing if we were talking about substituting one kind of open space for another to everyone’s benefit, but open space and contextual building envelopes are apples and affordable housing units are oranges.

The plan’s claim that greater height will allow more interesting building forms is unbelievable. There are countless ways to achieve architectural interest.  Market forces are interested in the bottom line, not artistic expression. The developers of New York’s designated landmark, Lever House, achieved its celebrated design by consuming less than the site’s zoning-allowed area, an option still open to any developer not driven solely by profit. Given additional height to work with, today’s developers will make building envelope decisions that enhance the value of the individual apartments they have for sale, at the community’s expense. The plan’s proposed changes will only make for taller and more luxurious market-rate housing for the rich, blocking light and air for the general public.

The plan’s assumption that zoning envelopes should allow full development of floor area ratios shows a willful disregard for zoning fundamentals, as does its application of across-the-board height limit changes. The worst thing about this proposal is that it will sacrifice the entirely separate benefit of painstakingly crafted contextual zoning without making New York any more affordable. It will only put New York’s already-runaway gentrification on steroids. In Chelsea, the cost of new condominiums is over $2200 per square foot. Not coincidentally, rents in the neighborhood are now among the highest in New York, even as neighborhood businesses are being driven out by rent increases.

This proposal’s scoping must include the option of communities’ retaining existing height limits where, as in Chelsea, raising them will harm both neighborhood fabric and affordability.

Linda Eskenas

The stated goals of creating affordable housing and affordable housing for our growing senior population are laudable goals that we support.

The premise of the proposed zoning changes is that we should allow every lot in the City to be built as high as possible and on every square inch of the lot, by doing this we will have affordable housing for all.

The premise of the proposed zoning changes is the only way to achieve these goals is that our senior and low income residents must give up their quality of life, and live in less space and not have access to required parking spaces.

We believe that the proposed changes will not achieve its goals and would negatively affect and diminish the quality of life in communities throughout the city.

One of the proposals is that seniors should have less square footage in their dwelling units than market rate housing; seniors should give up their existing parking spaces, new senior developments should not give seniors any off street parking spaces. Many seniors rely on care givers to bring them grocery and take them to their doctors; they are in walkers and wheelchairs. To be able to have a car or parking area for their use makes their lives more manageable. Why would one want to take that away from them?

The proposed changes to reduce building setbacks, allow taller buildings in height and increase the number of stories will result in a denser city with less air, light reaching the ground and adjacent properties. The reasons that these setbacks exist are because enlightened civic leaders and planners early in 1900s saw that unregulated buildings in bulk and height were negatively affecting the quality of life for the citizen, they passed zoning laws that required these setbacks to minimize these negative qualities.

The proposed changes make a premise that these existing controls for constrained sites, corner sites, existing zoning does not allow modern sustainable building to built in the city, and make for poor buildings. [According to the plan] the proposed changes would improve design flexibility and make more affordable housing. Architects are trained to be creative individuals and are able to design quality buildings for any site and conform to zoning and code constraints. We do not believe the Empire State building, Chrysler building Woolworth building, the Dakota and thousands of other buildings that conform to the zoning constraints are inferior designed buildings. In the 1980s when architects/builders made similar complaints that the zoning only allowed wedding cake building designs, Midtown Zoning was created to allow more flexible designs.

The increase in floor to floor height and building story heights may place our citizens at risk unless there are substantial changes to our building and fire codes. Building height and fire protection are directly related because egress calculations are based, in part, on how long it will take someone to go down a flight of stairs to exit the building and how high the fire department ladder truck can reach.

[On] the proposed change to reduce or eliminate rear yard dimension, court size and distance between buildings, these dimensions established standards for minimum amounts air light ventilation and privacy to the residents. The distance between windows and buildings is an important fire protection feature because it minimizes the spread of fire from flames leaping to one building to another and allows fire department apparatus access to the exterior sides of a building.

The proposed change is to reduce and eliminate parking requirements for the affordable housing units within one half mile of walking distance of a subway but the proposed law allows the market rate units in the same building to have off street parking. The proposed changes state that by eliminating parking requirements for the affordable units and allowing more market rate units there will be more affordable apartments for all perhaps as much as one or two additional affordable units more that the current regulations allow in the building.

Many families in our boroughs need a car to go to the supermarket or work nights and do not want to walk home one half mile at night.

There was time in New York City when people were densely packed into dwelling units, interior living rooms had little or no access to air, light, ventilation, privacy. The buildings were built to every square inch of the lot lines there were no required rear or side yards there was no required separation between windows and/or buildings. There were numerous fires that caused large numbers of fatalities. The average person lived in deplorable and unsafe conditions.

The builders and developers at the time said we are providing for housing for the waves of new immigrants who have come to New York City, this is the only way to provide them affordable housing.

[That was] the 1880s and 1890s. Our civic leaders, philanthropists, and reformers were horrified by these deplorable living conditions and the Tenement House Act of 1901 was enacted, followed by the Housing Maintenance Code and the Multiple Dwelling Law to correct these conditions.

Here we are in 2015 proposing to go back to the past with same mantra it is the only way to provide affordable housing. Who benefits, as in the past well connected real estate interests. Is this our vision for the future?

There are many proven past ways to provide affordable housing. Look at Co-op city in the Bronx, Stuyvesant town, Peter Cooper Village, West-Beth Artist, Mitchell-Lama type housing, Amalgamated Houses, etc.

The proposed path will be the path of destruction and diminish the quality of life for the average New Yorker.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

LANDMARK WEST's Letter to the Department of City Planning on the Proposed Citywide Rezoning

Here is, in full, LANDMARK WEST's letter to Carl Weisbrod, Chair of the New York City Planning Commission, regarding the NYC Planning Proposal titled 'Zoning for Quality and Affordability'

Dear Chair Weisbrod:

LANDMARK WEST! is deeply concerned about the damaging potential of the so-called "Zoning for Quality and Affordability," a top-down, sweeping initiative put forward by the New York City Department of City Planning.

Over the past four decades, the Upper West Side community has worked hard to preserve the character and quality of life that make our neighborhood both beautiful and livable. With the leadership and support of our elected officials, we have succeeded in protecting numerous landmarks and historic districts as well as establishing extensive contextual zoning districts.

Elliott Sclar (now director of the Center for Sustainable Urban Development, The Earth Institute, Columbia University) wrote about the Upper West Side in 2003:

The contextual zoning and landmark designations that guide this neighborhood's growth and change (and the neighborhood has grown and changed) were thoughtfully designed and democratically adopted policies intended to fairly balance the maintenance of this neighborhood's charms with the real needs for added development. [emphasis added]

West 70th Street, a typical midblock protected by
contextual zoning and historic district designation.
Sclar referred to the 1984 zoning amendments that created contextual districts between West 68th and 86th Streets. In 2007, the Upper West Side community advocated for — and achieved — the extension of contextual protections to the area between West 97th and 110th Streets. Both actions were carefully studied and adopted to fit the unique character and needs of the Upper West Side.

The City's current proposed plan would gut these neighborhood protections — with no analysis of the specific impacts on our neighborhood or any of the many other neighborhoods across the city from Sunnyside-Woodside to Park Slope, Bedford-Stuyvesant to Sunset Park, the Upper East Side to Greenwich Village, the Upper West Side to Pelham Gardens — by creating the potential for 20-30% height increases for new development.

And for what benefit? As much as New York City needs affordable housing, senior living and architectural quality, it also needs assurances. The City's plan is long on laudable goals, but short on mechanisms for actually achieving — and sustaining — them. The one-size-fits-all solution is simply, "Build more." At best, the stated policy goals are wishful thinking. At worst, they provide cover for what is, in reality, a massive giveaway to developers.

Affordable housing: Inclusionary housing — the primary vehicle advanced by this proposal — accounted for only 1.7% of new housing growth between 2005 and 2013 according to New York City Council Member Brad Lander's Inclusionary Zoning in New York City report. Under the proposed zoning amendments, the City predicts the creation of 8,000 affordable units a year for ten years, far short of the current demand. Furthermore, the proposal disregards the demonstrated link between inclusionary housing and loss of existing affordable units.

The Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) must meaningfully address the probability that new construction facilitated by this proposal will cause the demolition of existing buildings containing affordable housing units and speed the process of neighborhood gentrification that further reduces affordability.

Architectural quality: Past attempts to zone "good architecture" have been unsuccessful. The best architect-developer teams find ways to produce brilliant designs within given constraints. The worst seek only to maximize floor area. Contextual zoning is designed to protect the form and scale of existing architecture, which communities, by consensus, have sought to preserve.

The EIS must address the fact that raising height limits will inevitably lead to the erosion of this form and scale as well as to the loss of individual buildings that exhibit architectural quality. The City must perform a survey of historic resources that could be affected by this proposal, as well as buildings that, while they may not rise to the level of landmark designation or listing on the State and National Registers of Historic Place, possess the kinds of good design traits the proposal seeks to encourage (e.g., texture).

LANDMARK WEST! is also concerned about changes to rear setback requirements that would result in greater bulk in the collective rear yard "doughnut", obliterating the historic footprint and decreasing open space on the interiors of these blocks. The EIS must study this impact too.

Prototypes: We have fundamental concerns about the efficacy of evaluating real-world impacts through the use of prototypes. This proposal would significantly change zoning that was adopted only after a careful building-by-building, block-by-block, neighborhood-by-neighborhood analysis without anywhere near the same level of study.

The EIS must include a prototype analysis for every foreseeable scenario in each zoning district included in the proposal. Worst -case scenarios must be among these analyses. For example, there is no prototype for anticipated new construction in R8B districts, though according to the table on page 63 of the "Draft Scope of Work" (Figure 16), R8B base and overall heights would be increased.

Discretionary Review: The proposal provides for unchecked authority of "discretionary review" for hereto now undefined "constrained lots". Without precise definitions, there is unlimited potential for abuse of power as the very premise of zoning is in fact, a constraint and therefore there is conceivably no limit to what qualifies as a "constrained lot".

These are only a few of the questions that come up during a first, close review of this proposal — and without the benefit of seeing the actual zoning text that would implement it (the Department of City Planning has yet to release the text). In the case that these questions cannot be satisfactorily answered in the scope of the proposed action, we urge the City to leave the existing zoning districts in place and consider the possibility of creating new zoning districts, with the features described by this proposal, that can be adequately studied and, where appropriate, adopted in specific areas.

Already, the Upper West Side is experiencing a building boom of unprecedented scale. "As-of-right" towers in excess of 600 feet — a height more appropriate to Hudson Yards or the heart of midtown Manhattan — are in the planning stages for our avenues and side streets. This reality is before the additional new multipliers advanced by the City's proposal, which would raise these heights by 100+ feet, the equivalent of 10+ additional stories. The proposed zoning amendments would exacerbate existing trends and transform our neighborhood context, without providing residents and property owners information and analysis to understand direct impacts on them. The plan will destroy existing scale and quality of life for the sake of broad policy goals — the abstract "public" — that may or may not ever be realized.

Instead of a universal, one-size-fits-all set of amendments, LANDMARK WEST! calls for a more fine-grained approach that carefully studies neighborhoods to determine specific needs and potential impacts.


Kate Wood

Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer
City Council Member Helen Rosenthal
City Council Member Mark Levine
Manhattan Community Board 7
NYS Senator Bill Perkins
NYS Senator Brad Hoylman
NYS Assemblymember Daniel O'Donnell
NYS Assemblymember Linda Rosenthal
Historic Districts Council
New York Landmarks Conservancy
Municipal Art Society
Committee for Environmentally Sound Development
Coalition for a Livable West Side
Friends of the Upper East Side
Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation
West Siders for Responsible Development

Thursday, March 12, 2015

PRESERVATION ALERT! Neighborhood Character is Under Threat!



Thirty years ago, in response to incongruous Tower-in-the-Park development promoted by New York's 1961 Zoning Resolution, Upper West Siders worked with elected officials and city planners to establish Contextual Zoning Districts.  In 2007, together we succeeded in extending contextual protection to the blocks between West 97th and 110th Streets.  Our goal was and is to ensure that any future development would be in keeping with the character of our avenues and midblocks.

The 1984 zoning amendment identified building types that contribute to "distinctive environments" on the Upper West Side.  For example:

The typical midblock building is the 3 to 6-story, 55 to 60 foot high 'brownstone'...The consistency with which these building types north of 68th Street repeat themselves is the key to the strength and clarity of the image of the West Side [emphasis added]. 

West 70th Street, a typical brownstone-scale midblock, protected by R8B contextual zoning and historic district status.

Mayor de Blasio's new zoning proposal would
raise height limits in contextual districts
like these by as much as 20-30%!

The result will be higher, bulkier, out-of-character new buildings that do not adhere to the streetwall, undermining the neighborhood's human scale and unique sense of place.

Extell's Ariel Towers, under construction in 2007, triggered community action to ensure sound, contextual development. Jacob Silberberg for The New York Times (June 17, 2007)
The City claims that zoning amendments are needed in the name of architectural quality, affordable housing, senior living, and other laudable goals.  The problem is, this proposal ensures none of these aims.  It is a massive give-away to developers who have been trying to overturn our city's hard-won zoning and historic district protections for decades.

The contextual zoning and landmark designations that guide this neighborhood's growth and change (and the neighborhood has grown and changed) were thoughtfully designed and democratically adopted policies intended to fairly balance the maintenance of this neighborhood's charms with the real needs for added development. 

Elliott Sclar (now director of Center for Sustainable Urban Development, The Earth Institute, Columbia University), letter dated January 10, 2003
Big-money real-estate interests are eager to see the rules change.  We need to work together to make sure that doesn't happen.  The new citywide rezoning proposal is entering the public review process. In the next few weeks and months, local Community Boards, Borough Presidents, the City Planning Commission, and the City Council will hold public hearings and vote on the plan. As each new hearing date is announced, will will tell you where it is and when to be there.

Here's what you can do right now:

Write to your City Council Member, Community Board, and Borough President Gale Brewer. Copy the following text into an email:

I do not want the current and future contextual neighborhood zoning protections to be weakened by allowing height limits within these protected areas to be raised by 20-30%.  The proposed citywide rezoning plan would overturn communities’ hard-won zoning and historic district protections in one fell swoop.  The result would be higher, bulkier, out-of-character new buildings that undermine individual neighborhoods’ human scale and unique sense of place.  This is not the way to ensure affordability, architectural quality, and quality of life in our city.  Please do not allow this zoning proposal to pass.

Hon. Gale BrewerManhattan Borough President 
Phone: (212) 669-8300

Hon. Helen RosenthalCity Council District 6
District Office Phone: (212) 873-0282

Hon. Mark Levine, City Council District 7
District Office Phone: (212) 928-6814

Manhattan Community Board 7
Phone: (212) 362-4008

For more information about City Council districts, please click here; or about Community Boards, click here.

We are not alone!  Click here to read the excellent letter circulated by our colleagues at the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation.  This is an issue that affects us all!

If you have any further questions, contact us at:

NEW YORK, NY 10023

Friday, March 6, 2015


Copy and paste the following text in an email and send it to LPC Chair Meenakshi Srinivasan at, and please "cc"

March 6, 2015

Meenakshi Srinivasan, Chair
New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission
1 Centre Street, 9th Floor, North
New York, NY 10007

Dear Commissioner Srinivasan,

As citizens concerned about preserving our architectural legacy, including the First Church of Christ Scientist located at 361 Central Park West, we respectfully request for your office to follow its mandate to preserve the integrity of this architectural Landmark in its entirety, including its four facades, stained glass windows and roof profile as designed by the very prominent firm of Carrere and Hastings. Since its construction at the turn of the century, we have admired all the beautiful features of this dignified building and trust that under your direction, it will be preserved for many future generations to treasure and admire. The alterations presently proposed to this building counter the long term vision for NYC that your office has been entrusted with. As stated by Carrere and Hastings scholar Charles Warren, in his letter to you dated November 17, 2014: “The NYC LPC has a mandate to preserve the designated landmarks of our great city, this mandate does not require the commission to permit changes merely to maximize the profit of those who speculate in the real estate market. Allowing such destructive and unnecessary changes diminishes our architectural and cultural heritage and sets a precedent that undermines the protections the law extends to all of New York’s Landmarks.”


Signature Name (print)


E-mail address (optional)

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

UPDATE: First Church of Christ, Scientist (361 CPW)

On Tuesday, February 10, 2015 the Landmarks Preservation Commission held a Public Meeting on 361 Central Park West where architects presented their plans for multiple alterations to the exterior of this Individual Landmark, designed by Carrere & Hastings.

Please find a copies of LANDMARK WEST! President Kate Wood 's letter to Chair Meenakshi Srinivasan as well as other support letters from architects Charles Warren , Page Cowley and Robert A. M. Stern.

Also, please read LANDMARK WEST! Founder and former President Arlene Simon's Valedictory Speech to the LPC on December 9, 2014.

First, the bad news about the First Church of Christ, Scientist.  If you thought the proposal to redesign the Classical stone façade, stained-glass windows and roof of this Individual Landmark designed by Carrere & Hastings couldn’t get any worse…think again. 

At this morning’s Landmarks Preservation Commission “Public Meeting," it was evident that the application to convert this Landmark to condo use has strayed far from the principles of appropriateness established by the public testimony and the Commissioners’ own comments at the December 9, 2014, Public Hearing. 

This was no time for “business as usual.”  When Chair Meenakshi Srinivasan made a statement opening the “Hearing” to allow the applicant to speak (remember today’s session was billed as a “Public Meeting,” where no testimony would be taken), Landmark West! President Kate Wood seized the opportunity – the right, as a member of the public – to be heard.  Over Chair Srinivasan’s objections, she urged the Commissioners to stand up for this Individual Landmark and not allow a shoehorned residential use (also requiring a slew of code variances) to compromise it irreversibly.  Opponents of the project then stood up and left the room.

Essentially, the development team wants to plow ahead with plans to cut dozens of new windows, including six in the massive stone piers that define the Central Park West façade, and alter the original stained-glass windows.  Some other aspects of the design have been modified as well.

Now for the more positive news.  The Commissioners (a bare quorum of six) did not take a vote. Most of those present indicated a general willingness to approve the application, but specifically objected to the six new windows cut into the Central Park West façade, unconvinced that they were absolutely required to accommodate a new use.  So, it’s back to the drawing board…and back to the waiting game.

BIG THANKS to everyone who came down, wrote emails/letters, and made the effort to participate. Speaking up can make a difference! 

Please continue to tell Chair Srinivasan (,

·        Preserve, don’t destroy this Carrere & Hastings Landmark
·        Bring any future amendments to this application to a Public Hearing, not a so-called “Public Meeting” – if the applicant can speak, so must the public
·        Vote “no” to changes that serve only short-term development goals, not the long-term integrity of this Landmark

Monday, February 2, 2015

Tom Wolfe's 2005 Piece on 2 Columbus Circle

Check out Tom Wolfe's article in New York Magazine (July 4-11, 2005) about the battle for to save 2 Columbus Circle:

Tom Wolfe quotes former landmarks commissioner Richard Olcott, who in an email to then LPC chair Bob Tierney, said: “The design community needs to speak up and stop this madness put out by the Taliban.” A Talibanista in [Olcott's] book: Landmark West."

The Taliban we are not.  Determined advocates, we are.

The 2 Columbus Circle Game

Tom Wolfe
July 4-11, 2005

Was the Landmarks commissioner a little too close to the side that wants it destroyed? A would-be savior of Edward Durell Stone’s building looks at the latest, most dramatic twist in the city’s preservation drama.
At 9:49 A.M., Bob e-mails Laurie: “How do we get ourselves out of this craziness?”
At 9:50, Laurie e-mails Bob: “I don’t have an answer. I am speechless when it comes to Herbert . . . and to think that he is the Chief Critic for the Times!”

Loose-lipped we and ourselves lines like these from the “Bob and Laurie Letters,” just outed via the Freedom of Information Act, have suddenly converted the fate of 2 Columbus Circle, designed in 1964 by Edward Durell Stone as Huntington Hartford’s late Gallery of Modern Art, from a foregone conclusion—it’s a dead duck—into the hottest landmark battle since Jackie Onassis rode a train dubbed “The Landmark Express” to Washington and saved Grand Central in 1978. Last week things came to a boil. The building’s likely new owners (they’re in contract) had already applied for a permit to remove the marble façade. Then the World Monuments Fund put the building on its watch list of the world’s most endangered buildings, making it one of only nine Modernist structures so designated—while the Bob and Laurie letters appeared to catch the chief judge in the case, Bob, in flagrante cahoots with the new owners’ point woman, Laurie.

“Bob” is Robert Tierney, a veteran political appointee who was once counsel to Koch and is now chairman of the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission. A Landmarks hearing on Stone’s building has never been held; without one, it can’t be saved.

“Laurie” is Laurie Beckelman, a pretty blonde networker nonpareil hired by the American Craft Museum in 2002 to run its campaign to buy 2 Columbus Circle from the city and completely alter its appearance as a brand-new “Museum of Arts and Design.” When it comes to landmarking or, as in this case, avoiding landmarking, Laurie knows the City Hall fraternity grip. She was once chairman of the Landmarks Commission herself.
The “craziness” Bob was bemoaning was the ever-mounting opposition. The specific case in point that had driven Bob crazy and left Laurie speechless at 9:50 A.M. back on January 5, 2004, was this passage from New York Times critic Herbert Muschamp’s year-end architectural roundup: “The refusal of the New York City Landmarks Commission to hold hearings on the future of 2 Columbus Circle is a shocking dereliction of public duty. Unacceptable in itself, this abdication also raises the scary question of what other buildings the commission might choose to overlook in the future.”

Bob e-mails Laurie with a sardonic “ ‘shocking dereliction’ . . . ‘unacceptable’ . . . ‘abdication.’ Other than that, I thought his comments were fine.”

Over the past twenty months, the ranks of the building’s would-be saviors have swollen from a seeming handful of “cranks”—such as Tom Wolfe, viewed as a serial troublemaker with unfortunately easy access to people who buy ink by the barrel—to the biggest landmarks coalition since Grand Central days. The most authoritative of 2 Columbus Circle’s early defenders was architect Robert A.M. Stern, dean of the Yale School of Architecture. Bob and Laurie and their allies rolled their eyes, as if to say, “Well, you know Bob Stern and his . . . notions.” But soon the numbers and the reputations (more deans of architecture and urbanism, Robert Venturi, Chuck Close, Frank Stella, and virtually every major preservationist organization) became too big for knowing eye-rolls. The pressure became yet more intense last month when another Times critic, Nicolai Ouroussoff, called the building “essential to the city’s historical fabric” and flogged the Landmarks Commission some more.

Bob himself has not said a word about 2 Columbus Circle as chairman other than to reiterate the Commission’s official position: It hasn’t held a hearing because the building doesn’t rate one. His only other comments now on the record are the Bob and Laurie letters, obtained in a Freedom of Information request by preservation group Landmark West. Aside from his lamentation about the gathering insanity, he has mainly offered Laurie tactical help. In May 2003, under the heading “2 Columbus Circle—The Ox is in the Ditch,” Bob e-mails Laurie a Landmark West appeal to the troops to lobby a community board before it votes on the fate of the building: “Just so you know what they’re up to.” Later Laurie e-mails Bob letting him know her side won, “but I see trouble ahead.”

Bob replies, “Let me know how I can help on the trouble ahead.”

Landmark West has filed a lawsuit charging that Bob has colluded with Laurie and asking that he recuse himself from all future consideration of 2 Columbus Circle.

Ah, the craziness . . .

As recently as six months ago, a member of the Landmarks Commission, Richard Olcott, an architect, had e-mailed Bob about a Museum of Arts and Design symposium to be attended by prominent architects. “I think you should call up Laurie Beckelman and get her to strongarm every invitee on this list to write a letter about it. The design community needs to speak up and stop this madness put out by the Taliban.” A Talibanista in his book: Landmark West.

The craziness . . . and now madness on top of craziness . . .

Asked for a response to the lawsuit and the World Monuments Fund’s concern about 2 Columbus Circle, Bob replied via an e-mail from a spokesman, “Three landmark chairs, under two administrations, have carefully considered this issue and determined not to proceed with the designation process. The World Monuments Fund listing contains no information that would change this decision.”

He declined to elaborate upon the Letters, since “this matter is under active litigation.” Laurie was not available for comment.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

The More Things Change, The More They Stay the Same

From "West Side Warrior Hands Over Reins," Wall Street Journal (January 16, 2015).

Simon's full valedictory speech before the Landmarks Preservation Commission, delivered December 9, 2014:

My name is Arlene Simon. I appear today on behalf of LANDMARK WEST! in opposition to the application for a Certificate of Appropriateness to radically alter 1 West 96th St., an individually designated landmark (Carrère & Hastings, 1899-1903).

The substantive basis for the opposition of LANDMARK WEST!, and its Certificate of Appropriateness Committee will be addressed by Max Yeston.

LANDMARK WEST!’s C of A Committee is a group of volunteer architects, preservationists, City planners, lawyers and West Siders that reviews each and every Upper West Side application that comes before the Commissioners. Applicants and their architects make presentations to the Committee, there are site visits, detailed plan and drawing reviews, and the neighborhood is canvassed for their views – a thoroughly open process.

On a separate tack, I would like to take this opportunity to formally advise the Commissioners that as of January 1, 2015, Kate Wood will assume the role of President and CEO of LANDMARK WEST! I will continue as a non-executive Chairman of the Board, but Kate will run the  show. You will soon see and hear her, again, at this podium – often, and persuasively.  At out 25th Anniversary, Robert A.M. Stern had this to say: “LANDMARK WEST! is just at the beginning. The first 25 years are the teething years. Now we need early childhood, then go on to teenage and later stages. We need LANDMARK WEST! I can’t say it more clearly. Preservation is a continuing saga.” If Stern was right, and I believe firmly that he is, Kate will have her hands full.

Compare Bob Stern’s comment with that of a Commissioner, then sitting but no longer, who complained of LANDMARK WEST! as “the Taliban,” in an email unearthed in a FOIL request in connection with one of the Commission’s most glaring failures – Edward Durrell Stone’s 2 Columbus Circle. The Taliban we are not. Determined advocates, we are.

Now, a personal note. After 30 years of appearing before this Commission, through the Chairmanships of Kent Barwick, Gene Norman, David Todd, Laurie Beckelman, Jennifer Raab, Sherida Paulsen and Robert Tierney, I think I am qualified to offer substantive observations on the direction the Commission is taking regarding public participation and meaningful input to the Commissioners’ deliberations.

The attempted de-calendaring of 100 buildings and historic districts, which had seen thousands of hours of research; were calendared, and heard by the Commissioners over the years, is but one example.

The increasing use of non-public so-called “public meetings,” to decide important applications – rather than the legally required “public hearing” process, is another. 

The increasing use of staff reviews – and approvals – rather than full hearings before the Commission is yet another. The technique of holding a public hearing, then referring the application to staff for revisions, then reconsidering the application without public participation at a Public meeting, is a shameless scam. 

The overall direction is clear – push down as much as you can, as far as you can, from public view and comment, and even Commissioner view and comment and decision-making.

In an age otherwise characterized by transparency, public access, a significant role for the public, the Commission is taking a 180° turn in the opposite direction.

Over the past 30 years, I have been aware of the inevitable political aspect of the Commission’s work. It is not easy to stand up to REBNY, or Con Edison, or the Archdiocese – not every Mayor (perhaps no Mayor) can – but you can – and you must. Every Mayor has had his stamp on every Chairman’s tenure. You must use your public-directed stamp as well.

The aggressive anti-public stamp of Mayor de Blasio and the current chair, is unmistakable – and regrettable. This Commission – and its Chairman-directed staff – should not act, and should not be seen – as an adjunct to the real estate community. Your function is not to provide one-stop service to accommodate owners and developers who want to avoid landmark designation or enforcement. You are, at heart, a regulatory agency, an exercise of police power. The public, not the applicant or owner, is your client.

A final word to the pro-bono Commissioners. Thank you for your service. Yes, the Chair is powerful and has its leadership prerogatives. But no, you are not potted plants. The warm glow and professional status and satisfaction you derive from your position does not mean you have to check your professional judgment and independent voice at the door. How often, over the years, have you – and your predecessors – lamented privately at directives and decisions by the Chair? Suffering in silence is not part of your job. A number of you knew that the de-calendaring gambit was wrong. We know that. You know we know that.

But, again, that’s just one example. You must stand up and speak up for what you believe is right. You will feel better for it. The public will benefit from it. The law requires it.

Once you are gone from the Commission, and from this earth, your actions, and failures to act, here, will endure forever. Make your service count, in the long run.