Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Stable Row Update


The good news is that the room was packed to the gills (and into the hall) for today's public hearings at the Landmarks Preservation Commission on the former Dakota Stable and New York Cab Company Stable. Thanks to everyone who made a special effort (and we know that's everyone) to attend and testify. The quality and passion of your testimony was truly exceptional.

The somewhat anticlimactic news is that the Commissioners neither discussed nor voted on either of the designations. The hearing was closed at the completion of public testimony. According to Landmarks Chair Robert B. Tierney, the Commission will make its decision in a "timely fashion". A neighbor's attempt to obtain a clearer definition of "timely" yielded no more definite response. But, as Tierney made plain in his preamble to the hearing, the Commission confesses that it is powerless to stop the ongoing demolition work at the Dakota Stable. To quote Landmark West's testimony from this morning: "No power + no action = lost buildings." (A copy of our full testimony is copied below.)

To our knowledge, the record remains open. So, if you were not able to attend today's hearing, you can still submit testimony to
comments@lpc.nyc.gov. We will let you know as soon as we have more information to share.

Testimony of LANDMARK WEST!
Before the Landmarks Preservation Commission
Former New York Cab Company Stable (318-324 Amsterdam Avenue)
and Former Dakota Stable (348-354 Amsterdam Avenue)
October 17, 2006

LANDMARK WEST! is a not-for-profit community organization committed to the preservation of the architectural heritage of the Upper West Side.

Today’s hearing should be a celebration. Two buildings – the former New York Cab Company and the former Dakota Stable – that have been on preservationists’ radar screen for many years are finally getting their day in court. Twenty years ago, working with such architectural experts as former Landmarks Commissioner Sarah Bradford Landau and Columbia professor Andrew Scott Dolkart, LW! put these buildings on our landmark “wish list,” which we submitted to the Commission in 1986 and repeatedly since. In the past six months, public support has crescendoed as neighbors, elected officials, Community Board 7 and citywide preservation groups called for a hearing for both buildings. As of this morning, nearly 200 individuals have signed an online petition urging designation.

When I was thinking about this testimony last week, I had been prepared to wax poetic about the buildings’ graceful, round-arched windows, creative use of brick as ornament, and the lovely play of light off the richly textured, rose- and earth-colored façades.

But, as we all know from painful experience, in preservation timing is everything. And delay can be deadly. On the evening of September 20, days before the Commission voted to calendar these buildings, workers arrived at the Dakota Stable and removed some of its original, delicately arched, wood windows – a sad but not fatal blow to the façade. More severe damage was inflicted when, just this past Friday, more workers began dismantling the building’s beautiful, corbelled-brick cornice and decorative brick window surrounds. More destruction took place today, although it’s hard to tell where things stand because the building is shrouded in scaffolding, a permit for which was approved by the Department of Buildings four days ago, on October 13.

That both buildings more than meet the standard for landmark designation is, by now, beyond question. Therefore, today’s hearing will result in one of two outcomes:

1. The Commission will decide that it is too late for the Dakota Stable, the elements of the building that made it landmark-worthy have already been destroyed, and that nothing can be done but designate the Cab Company on its own – an excellent building but only part of a much more compelling ensemble;


2. The Commission will designate both the New York Cab Company and the Dakota Stable – and use every power it has to ensure that the architectural elements that have been destroyed on the very eve of designation are restored.

We are assured by counsel that the Commission has no authority to require restoration since the process is applicant – or owner – driven. Nor can the Commission override building permits issued prior to calendaring. Apparently, the Commission cannot even stop the Department of Buildings from issuing a scaffolding permit days before a scheduled public designation hearing.

So, does that leave us only with Option 1 – to designate the New York Cab Company alone and let the Dakota Stable go? We fervently hope not. Because that would serve as the final proof that the process is indeed owner-driven, not community- or public- or citizen-driven. And if an owner wants to avoid landmark designation, all he needs to do is pull a permit as a pre-emptive measure, whether or not he has good reason to use it.

Option 2 leaves us with something still far from ideal. At best, we get the shadow of an 1890s building, needlessly stripped in 2006, restored who knows when. Or perhaps it never gets restored. And that is perhaps the most fitting result of all – a scarred façade to serve as a daily reminder of what we have lost, a Landmarks Commission able to respond quickly and decisively to preserve buildings that clearly merit designation.

No power + no action = lost buildings. It’s as simple as that. So, let us all have the honesty and integrity to admit that the landmarks process is fatally flawed; that the Commission by its deliberate inaction in the face of strong designation evidence and support, has been complicit in the destruction of this landmark. And the Crawford Clothes building. And the Dorothy Day cottages. And P.S. 64. And how many more?

If this Commission, under this Mayor, really wants to salvage anything from the Dakota Stables, it will do one of two things:

Promptly calendar every building that you and your trusted experts reasonably believe warrants serious consideration for designation;

Promote legislation that will prevent owners from obtaining and acting on building permits intended solely to obstruct the landmarks process.

Both options would take valuable time and effort on the part of the Commission and its staff, but time and effort much better spent than on more hearings like today’s.

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