Thursday, November 30, 2006

Big Real Estate’s Grip (1 Letter)

Published in The New York Times, November 28, 2006

To the Editor:

Re "The (Naked) City and the Undead," by Tom Wolfe (Op-Ed, Nov. 26):

Hurrah to Mr. Wolfe! The real estate industry’s control of our city needs to be revealed more and more on a daily basis.

My own mantra for years has been that it owns the city.

Mr. Wolfe’s article proves the point quite well.

The only aspect unmentioned is the need for affordable housing, another issue the industry has no interest in; no “luxury condos” would be needed to house the middle class in this town, and that seems to be all we see around us.

Among my friends, we find that our college-educated, hard-working children cannot afford to live here.

Judy Wood
New York, Nov. 26, 2006

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

New York Sun Piece Presents Opposing Viewpoint to Tom Wolfe's Times Op-Ed


Published in The New York Sun, November 29, 2006

Bonfire of the Landmarks

By Edward Glaeser

Once again, the dark clouds of a real estate battle darken the sunny cooperatives of the Upper East Side. The neighborhood's great paladins of preservation are sharpening their verbal rapiers to wage war against those nefarious malefactors, the developers who make Manhattan more affordable by building more housing. The great melee on Madison, the fight over new construction on the old Parke-Bernet building, is starting.

Glamorous neighborhood activists will fight developer Aby Rosen and architect Norman Foster for the hearts and minds of the Landmarks Preservation Commission. That commission has the power to block or change any development plans for the site. Sunday, Tom Wolfe wrote a fiery broadside against the allegedly increasing control that developers have over the once independent Landmarks Preservation Commission.

As a student of land-use battles, I am in heaven. Not since Kevin Kline tried to persuade the Landmarks Commission by quoting Richard II on proportionality has a zoning fight been so exciting. I spent last night dreaming about the educational novella that Mr. Wolfe could write to further his cause. Perhaps the developer turned stoic of "A Man in Full" will try to build a shopping mall atop the New York Public Library only to be stopped by the brave opposition of Charlotte Simmons and the less despicable characters from the "The Bonfire of the Vanities."

But my enthusiasm for the fight does not cause me to forget that this is an important battle. There are real benefits and costs from blocking this project. On the benefits side, blocking the project will preserve the view from the Carlyle and save neighbors from the curse of too much modernism as they throng to St. James Episcopal Church.

On the costs side, blocking new development ensures that Manhattan will stay unaffordable. New supply is the only way that middle-income people will be able to afford the city. When supply is choked off, people must pay more for housing, and firms in New York must pay higher salaries to their employees. The mayor has courageously fought for and achieved an increase in granting construction permits because he knows that the city's economic vitality depends on its affordability.

The core issue in this battle is respect for private property. Aby Rosen, not the community, owns 980 Madison Ave. The Landmarks Commission's stripping him of the ability to build would represent a great step in state power over private property. It seems odd for members of the normally non-socialist urban haute bourgeoisie to support so enthusiastically such a massive expropriation of private property.

Seen in this light, the Landmarks Preservation Commission is not a bastion of good government, but an appointed agency with a vast amount of relatively unchecked power. Over the past 40 years, the Landmarks Commission has created 85 historic districts and designated almost 23,000 buildings as landmarks, giving it control over vast tracts of the city's most valuable real estate. The power of the commission is certainly one explanation for the decline in granting building permits and the reduction in the height of new buildings. Mr. Kline's oration was not for naught. Twelve floors got lopped off the project he opposed.

The commission is filled with decent people trying to do what they think is right, but the composition of the commission leads them to put too much weight on aesthetics and too little weight on economics. I am sure that the Foster tower atop 980 Madison will be beautiful, but even if it were not, the tower would have economic benefits, and those benefits need to be weighed against any aesthetic costs. The mayor has the skills and incentives to weigh aesthetics and economics. I am less sure about the commission whose 11 members must include three architects, one landscape architect, and a city planner. These professions have a dangerous track record of putting aesthetics ahead of everything else.

The appointed and unsalaried nature of the commission also tilts the battle in favor of the charismatic abutters over the middle-income beneficiaries of new construction. If I were serving as an appointed, unsalaried member of the commission, I would find it hard to withstand the appeals of a great actor or writer. Perhaps, I could remind myself that they were acting in their own self-interest in what objectively is an extreme example of Nimbyism, but their eloquence would surely cause my concerns to wilt.

I am not enthusiastic about a powerful Landmarks Preservation Commission that can impose its aesthetic vision on the city unchecked. We have elected representatives who have their flaws, but they have incentives to take into account the needs of the city beyond the concerns of abutters. If the Landmarks Commission doesn't allow 980 Madison to rise, I hope that the mayor and City Council will rein the commission in.

Mr. Glaeser is the Glimp professor of economics at Harvard, director of the Taubman Center for State and Local Government, and a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Tom Wolfe Takes on Mayor Bloomberg's Landmarks Commission

Tom Wolfe's full-spread Op-Ed piece in Sunday's New York Times is required reading for anyone who cares about New York City. Period.

"The (Naked) City and the Undead," 11/26/06

A few quotes can hardly do justice to Wolfe's dead-on assessment of the "undead" Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) and its downward spiral. But since the post-holiday fog may still be lifting, some excerpts - sure to get your attention - are pasted below.

Strong words must be accompanied by strong deeds. Here's what you can do:

1) Email with your response to Wolfe's op-ed;

2) Cc your messages to Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg (go to and paste in your message), LPC Chair Robert B. Tierney (, and;

3) Email the Citizens Emergency Committee to Preserve Preservation(, the landmarks-reform campaign (referred to by Wolfe at the end of his piece) that is now preparing a lawsuit that would reinforce the independence of Landmarks Commissioners by compelling MayorBloomberg to immediately re-appoint or replace the 9 (out of 11) whose terms have lapsed. Lend your name to the list of co-petitioners in the lawsuit and support this initiative to use the "third branch of government to get the first branch to do its job" (in the words of Whitney North Seymour, Jr., attorney and acting secretary of the Emergency Committee)!

And now some quotes...

Referring to Aby Rosen, the prospective developer of 980 Madison Avenue:"Like every major developer in town, he knows that the LandmarksPreservation Commission has been de facto defunct for going on 20 years. Today it is a bureau of the walking dead, tended by one Robert B. Tierney."

Revisiting Mayor Koch's abrupt dismissal of Landmarks Commission Anthony M.Tung in 1987: "Never again could you expect a landmarks commissioner, muchless a chairman, to stand up to a mayor...never again could you expect anyof them to stand up to Big Real Estate, if Big Real Estate had the mayor's backing."

Reviewing Mayor Bloomberg's landmarks track record (including 2 ColumbusCircle and the former Dakota Stable): "Reading the tank-style tread marks of the excavation earth-movers today, one is forced to conclude that Rudy Giuliani and Ed Koch are not the only mayors who would just as soon have ended the charade by mercifully putting the Landmarks Preservation Commission and the walking dead out of their misery...Mayor Michael R.Bloomberg certainly seems to qualify as another."

Do read the entire piece - it's worth it.

(See below or follow this link:

Monday, November 27, 2006

Tom Wolfe's New York Times Op-Ed Piece

Published in The New York Times, November 26, 2006

The (Naked) City and the Undead

By Tom Wolfe

CHIN up, tummy out, Aby Rosen, the 46-year-old German developer, owner of the Seagram Building and Lever House, was posing for pictures in front of 980 Madison Avenue barely one month ago when he grew so bold as to boast: “I have zero fear. Fear is not something I have.”

Easy for you to say, braveheart! The courage-crowing tycoon knows very well that in the current battle over 980 Madison, a five-story Art Moderne building stretching from 76th Street to 77th Street, the contest is already completely snookered in his favor.

On top of this block-long low-rise he intends to build one of his Aby Rosen jumbo glass boxes full of commercial space and condominiums, rising straight up a sheer 30 stories. His big problem — or, to be more accurate, “problem” — is that 980 Madison is in the heart of the Upper East Side Historic District, and it would be hard to dream up anything short of a Mobil station more out of place there than a Mondo Condo glass box by Aby Rosen.

The writer Tom Wolfe and other neighbors have taken to lobbing objections in the direction of the Landmarks Preservation Commission, the city’s official watchdog for landmarked areas. The commission has already held a hearing and could stop Aby Rosen dead in his tracks at a moment’s notice, just like that.

But what, him worry? Like every major developer in town, he knows that the Landmarks Preservation Commission has been de facto defunct for going on 20 years. Today it is a bureau of the walking dead, tended by one Robert B. Tierney.

Mr. Tierney and the 10 members of his commission already have a hearty, comrades-in-arms, marching-along-together history with Aby Rosen. The commission was highly instrumental last November in clearing the way for him to build a zone-busting glass box full of condominiums on Lexington Avenue and 53rd Street in return for his guarantee, written into the deed, that the exterior of his Seagram Building, given landmark status in 1989, will be maintained in its original condition in perpetuity.

Mr. Tierney gushed — insofar as one can gush in a press release — that Aby Rosen was not only ensuring “the highest level of protection” for this historic building, he was also being so kind as to favor New York with “a landmark of the future,” namely, his glass box godzilla at Lexington and 53rd.

How generous! How civic-minded! Noblesse oblige! ... until one reminds oneself that Aby Rosen and every other owner of a landmarked building is required by law to maintain it in its original condition.

Aby Rosen is a global success story of the 21st century, a citizen of the world. He should care about New York’s parochial steps to make historic preservation a government responsibility?
That was in another century, the 20th, 1965 to be exact, after a developer had demolished that old solemn-columned classical temple of passenger train travel, Pennsylvania Station, to make way for Madison Square Garden, a coliseum where the rabble could go watch hungover Canadians on ice skates batter one another senseless.

Never again! vowed le tout New York. The thrill of a Goo-Goo crusade thrummed through the gizzard of everyone from, eventually, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and legions of other celebrities and socialites to virtually every prominent politician, from Mayor Robert F. Wagner on down.

Never again! The City Council gave legal muscle to a previously powerless Landmarks Preservation Commission, made up of scholars, city planners, architects, artists, landscapers, designers. This was to be an aesthetic and scholarly elite with virtually absolute discretion in deciding what buildings and historic districts should be preserved forever through landmark designation.

Goo-Goo was an old City Hall term for believers in Good Government, by which the regulars meant idealistic lightweights whose feet seldom touched the ground. But all at once every big shot in New York seemed to have gone Goo-Goo.

So feverish was that born-again bliss that for a decade the commission pretty much had its idealistic way. But when the commission tapped for protection the city’s other great monument to railroad travel, Grand Central Terminal, it wound up in a do-or-die lawsuit that reached the United States Supreme Court in 1978.

Goo-Goo fever now shot up to a peak. Jackie O. herself served as the star passenger on the Landmarks Express, a private train packed with celebrities, socialites and members of the commission who headed to Washington to exhort the court to uphold New York’s landmarks law — and in so doing save the station. Mayor Edward I. Koch gave a Goo-Goo, Never Again send-off speech so moving that cynical, battle-hardened, social-cliff-climbing Manhattan matrons had to dab their eye sockets. Not even the Supreme Court justices, it seemed, could control themselves in a Camelot moment. They upheld the landmarks law faster than you could say Oh, Jackie, ohhhhh ...

Oooooooooohhhhhhhhhhhh yes, went the landmarks commissioners. The chairman received a salary, but the commissioners got no pay for this job. Still, the psychic rewards were turning out to be awesome. You were working for a cause you believed in, and at a high and highly visible level. After all, you were now an official of the 20th century’s capital of the world, New York City, and you kept running into the very rich and very social — who were suddenly giving you aero-kisses, Euro-style, four millimeters away from each side of your face.

The commissioners had made names for themselves professionally as scholars, architects, city planning consultants, but now they were moving up in life in a way they could have never anticipated. One evening a commissioner from the Jackie O. period is at a cocktail party — you were now being invited to an infinitely better class of parties — when a benefactress of the City Beautiful movement approaches him and asks if he would like to go over to Lincoln Center and watch Jerome Robbins rehearsing with Mikhail Baryshnikov for some ballet that’s coming up. The next thing he knows, her driver is taking the two of them over to the theater.

“The place is dark except for the stage,” he recounted, “and there’s Jerome Robbins up there, and Baryshnikov, and Robbins is having Baryshnikov try this and try that — and the only people in the whole audience are this woman and me! Us and some Saudi prince who’s backing the show.”

You would walk into a conference room and people would jump up and shake your hand and take your coat and show you to a seat and smile and beam, beam, beam respect — because you and your commission colleagues wielded a government power over private property second only to confiscating it via the right of eminent domain. When you made someone’s property a landmark, he retained title to it, but you confiscated his ability to exploit it by putting up something new in its place or selling it for development. In a former commissioner’s own words: “One day it dawns on you. You’re pushing around billions of dollars worth of real estate development. You’re telling the biggest developers in the world, ‘Keep moving, Jack! You can’t build there!’ ”

Somehow you had made it inside the Walled City that Theodore Dreiser described in “Sister Carrie.” There was New York the melting pot, the boiling stew, of the eight million ... and there was the Walled City, wherein existed New York’s fabled excitement and glamour and power and blinding wealth and extravagant ease and fine slim people who introduced you to restaurants where you didn’t dare order a beer and wished you hadn’t worn a brown suit and a “colorful” necktie. Thus it came to be that turnover on the commission was exceedingly low.

No fools, New York’s mayors got the picture soon enough. Why on earth allow so much power to remain in the hands of a bunch of arty, sentimental, cerebral, status-addicted Goo-Goos? And the name of the man who first made City Hall’s contempt obvious? Edward I. Koch! The very man who had left them sobbing Goo-Goo tears during the Camelot moment! Not the velvet-gloved sort, Mr. Koch went ballistic in what became the notorious Tung affair.

In 1987, for good and sufficient civic and political reasons, the mayor wanted to turn Bryant Park, the badly rundown open space behind the New York Public Library, into a gloriously landscaped Tuileries Garden for Manhattan crowned with a Lucullan restaurant. But building the restaurant would mean cutting down a stand of towering old trees. The mayor wanted the commission to give this alteration its blessing.

Enter Anthony M. Tung. Mr. Tung was only 37 but had served on the commission for eight years. One and all agreed he was probably the most erudite member the commission had ever had, a city planning consultant, a walking encyclopedia of the history, principles and practices of urban preservation, and a brilliant analyst; in short, a genius in that field.

Mr. Tung argued that the proposed restaurant would be a landmark desecration, butchering not only many magnificent old trees but also the entire rear aspect of the library, which was every bit as innovative and historically important as the more famous Fifth Avenue front with its lions and great staircase. So eloquent was he, so utterly convincing, that the commission, chairman and all, swung around and denied Mayor Koch’s request — unanimously — and made him look like a hairy Visigoth getting ready to sack Rome.

Impudent wretch! The mayor got word to the genius that he was fired so fast — five days later — it made the tail on the Q of Mr. Tung’s sky-high I.Q. curl.

Getting rid of him was easy, or should have been. Landmarks commissioners were appointed for three-year terms, and it turned out that Mr. Tung and six of the other nine unpaid commissioners had never been officially reappointed. They had just kept on serving. Technically, they were expirees. This was probably the result of nothing more than bureaucratic inertia. But it was very handy! All the mayor had to do was have somebody send Mr. Tung a letter saying his term had expired, he wasn’t being reappointed, so long, thanks a million for your service, and kindly go off and be a genius by yourself. In fact, thanks to the rank odor, it took the mayor months to find a both willing and respectable candidate to take his place.

Mr. Tung didn’t take it lying down for a moment, and the Tung affair boiled and stewed in the press for months. Still, no one seemed to realize at the time that the landmarks law, as originally conceived, was now null and void. From the Tung affair on, the Landmarks Preservation Commission’s aesthetic elite was pretty much free to bestow landmark status on any property it saw fit — unless the mayor had designs on it himself.

Barely a peep in Anthony Tung’s behalf was heard from any commissioner or the chairman, even though all of them had so bravely agreed with him at the outset. Well ... let’s face it. One has to render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, doesn’t one? But we’ll get to decide on the rest, won’t we? And still be invited to all the parties?

Talk about never again! Never again could you expect a landmarks commissioner, much less a chairman, to stand up to a mayor. And, as a corollary, never again could you expect any of them to stand up to Big Real Estate, if Big Real Estate had the mayor’s backing. As they say at City Hall, they got along by going along. It wasn’t so bad ... talking the talk with one’s fellow walking dead and walking the walking-dead walk to swell parties and events.

As for Anthony Tung: he went off and, a genius by himself, wrote a book titled “Preserving the World’s Great Cities.” Today it is the bible of urban preservationists all over the globe, and from Mexico City to Athens to Istanbul to Kyoto and Singapore, he is one of the world’s most sought-after speakers and consultants on urban planning, most recently in New Orleans.

The undead commission became only undeader under Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani. When he became mayor in 1994, New York had hit the bottom of a full-blown commercial real estate depression, and he wasn’t about to allow anyone with a weakness for silvery-tongues to become chairman. So he appointed a former campaign strategist, Jennifer J. Raab, who was introduced to the public as a highly experienced land-use lawyer.

Translated, that meant she made her living representing landlords and developers for the big-time, high-billing-and-the-clock-is-running law firm of Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison. It didn’t take long for her to enunciate the Raab Doctrine. No longer is it Us against Them, she said. From now on everyone, preservationists and developers alike, will recognize their common interest in preservation.

With that, she bade Us lamb chops to lie down with Them lions and bestowed “preservation achievement awards” for preservation-friendly architectural designs upon the Gap — which she teasingly referred to as the “big bad corporation” by way of showing Them lions were really pussycats — and Bernard Mendik, chairman of the Real Estate Board, the lobby for landlords, developers and brokers, by natural selection the evolutionary enemies of landmarks preservation. As for the commission, it remained packed with expirees who would gladly disintegrate, if necessary, to avoid casting so much as a shadow on any of the mayor’s plans.

Reading the tank-style tread marks of the excavation earth-movers today, one is forced to conclude that Rudy Giuliani and Ed Koch are not the only mayors who would just as soon have ended the charade by mercifully putting the Landmarks Preservation Commission and the walking dead out of their misery or at least slipping them into the sleep mode the way you can a computer. Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg certainly seems to qualify as another.

Last year, as he had ever since 2003, Mayor Bloomberg made it clear that he wanted a 40-year-old white marble building the city owned at 2 Columbus Circle, designed by Edward Durell Stone for Huntington Hartford’s short-lived Gallery of Modern Art, replaced by a glass box proposed by the Museum of Arts and Design, to fit in with the behemoth glass box of the nearby Time Warner Center.

Back in the 1960s, critics and the art world in general had sniggered, sneered and hooted Mr. Hartford’s gallery into oblivion after only five years. But that was 40 years ago, and art history is chronically revisionist. (Rembrandt once got cold-shouldered for two centuries.)

Now, in 2005, the mayor was confronted by an incredible uprising of scholars, world-renowned architects, deans of art and architecture at the great universities, mega-wattage art worldlings — the greatest massing of cultural luminaries in a single cause since the anti-fascist crusades of the 1930s! — all calling upon the commission to hold a hearing, lest this historic work by a great American architect be destroyed without a second thought.

For any owner of a magnifying glass seeking a closer look at this astral army:

The two most eminent architectural historians in the United States, Vincent Scully and Robert A. M. Stern, dean of Yale’s school of architecture, a famous and prolific architect in his own right, and the definitive historian of New York architecture from the late 19th century to the present, co-author of the magisterial quintet, “New York 1880,” “ New York 1900,” “New York 1930,” “New York 1960,” “New York 2000”; nine deans and graduate program directors of art and architecture, including three from Columbia University, and one of the nation’s best-known urban studies scholars and theorists, Witold Rybczynski of the University of Pennsylvania; the most elite lineup of architects who ever stood shank to flank in a preservation controversy: Richard Meier, Cesar Pelli, Robert Venturi, Laurie Olin, Hugh Hardy and Peter Eisenman, plus Dean Stern, to single out but seven from among a host of them; the current chief architectural critic of The New York Times and two of his predecessors, one of whom called the commission’s year-after-year refusal to call a hearing “a shocking dereliction of public duty”; The Times itself, in an editorial characterizing Stone’s building as “already an architectural monument, the work of a major architect, whether the commission likes it or not” and the refusal as “an enormous mistake, one that seriously erodes [the commission’s] purpose and whatever independence it has managed to attain since it was first created”; the nation’s, New York State’s and New York City’s most highly respected preservation societies, including the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the World Monuments Fund; Agnes Gund, who had just stepped down as president of the board of the Museum of Modern Art; the artists Frank Stella and Chuck Close, under whose letterhead a petition signed by more than 50 artists went to Mayor Bloomberg; and three former chairmen of the landmarks commission.

If the administration had the subpoena power to summon a jury of the most esteemed architectural and urban planning authorities in the United States to judge the case of 2 Columbus Circle — it would have summoned the very same people who are in that condensed like-a-lump-of-coal type. There are no higher authorities. So how did Robert Tierney respond to them?

He didn’t! Not once! It was as simple as that!

He stayed holed up in his bunker at 1 Centre Street, while Spokesperson said ... and said ...and said ... and said, “Under two administrations and three chairmen, the commission has declined to consider this site for landmark status, and I am aware of no new information that would make it necessary to revisit the matter”...

“Under two administrations and three chairmen, the commission has declined to consider”...

“Under two administrations and three chairmen, the commission”...

“Under two administrations and three”...

But, but, but how could he do that without seeming ... brain dead ... or without taking direct orders? Either way, the chairman’s refusal to call a hearing — a mere hearing, which would commit the commission to nothing — or to so much as discuss a hearing ... was as good as an official proclamation:

Landmarking no longer exists in New York City, not even as a principle — or not above the level of the occasional parish house in Staten Island or rusticated old stone archway in eastern Queens.

By this time last year unionized elves with air hammers had reduced 2 Columbus Circle’s white marble to rubble and set about gutting the interior.

The chairman was marginally less blunt about staying out of the way of Big Real Estate. For two decades preservation groups had been petitioning the commission to give landmark status to the five-story Romanesque Revival-style Dakota Stable on Amsterdam Avenue at 77th Street, the most important remaining relic of late 19th century New York’s palmy days of riding horses and traveling by horse-drawn carriage.

This spring they learned that Big Real Estate, in the form of the Related Companies, developers of the Time Warner Center, had a contract to buy the building with the intention of demolishing it and putting up 14 stories’ worth of condominiums. (Ironically, they picked Robert Stern as the architect.) In July, Mr. Tierney indicated he was going to hold a hearing ... hold a hearing ... hold a hearing ... hold a hearing ... but was somehow delayed until Oct. 17 — and wouldn’t you know it? In September the city had granted permission to alter the Dakota Stable and by Oct. 17 it had been stripped of its architectural details, and all that was left was “a stucco box.”

Those were the chairman’s own words, “a stucco box.” Just the other day he shook his head and declared it was too late to do anything about that.

SO we will never know about Aby Rosen! Maybe the man does have “zero fear.” But he won’t be put to the test this time. In the case of 980 Madison he has one-click approval whenever They feel the time is right.

In case he’s wondering, he should know that the table is set at the Landmarks Preservation Commission. Set beautifully! Never better! Nine of the 10 current commissioners, not counting Mr. Tierney, are expirees — 90 percent! — in imminent danger of getting canned if they don’t do the right thing by Aby Rosen!

Once upon a time, in the legendary age of Camelot, back when Jackie O. could make the entire United States Supreme Court roll over and moan, it was the landlords and developers who used to scream bloody murder at the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission.

Just two weeks ago close to 100 leaders of New York City preservationist groups held a “citizens emergency meeting” at the General Society Library on West 44th Street... and bayed for the blind goddess, Justice, to make Preservation the commission’s middle name. Many of them were young, young enough to envision a landmarking renaissance. Youth! The way they bayed was enough to make the hair stand up on old Aby Rosen’s arm.

Tom Wolfe is the author, most recently, of “I Am Charlotte Simmons.”’

Joachim’s Temptation

Upper West Side Baptists pray for real-estate guidance while façade-worshipping neighbors fret.

New York Magazine
November 27, 2006

By Arianne Cohen

The stranger came uninvited to the First Baptist Church on West 79th Street last spring. He was a real-estate developer, and he had an offer: Let us replace your exuberant 1894 Romanesque edifice and build something more practical. The church would share ownership and space in a new, fourteen-story condo, and get an eight-figure cash payout to boot. Thus began the great temptation of W. Lawrence Joachim, president of the church’s board of trustees. “The proposal’s basic concept was a residential condo building with retail space and the church in between,” says Joachim. He declined. But the developer returned this summer with a revised plan. Six additional real-estate companies have also approached to give advice.

Among other things, Joachim worries about the effect of buckets of cash on a church, which has about 180 members (not enough to fill its 800 pews; a Korean church and Redeemer Presbyterian share the space). “We have plenty of chapel room, but the office and classroom space leave something to be desired,” he says. “And a gym and a soup kitchen might be nice to have.”

“We’ve been praying for months about this,” he says. “We’re emphasizing prayer rather than discussion, because we believe that we need to set aside self-will. We need to follow His will.” His neighbors fear for the loss of yet another piece of their historic paradise. The Citizens Emergency Committee to Preserve Preservation is meeting; its goal is to have the church landmarked, precluding redevelopment. “I’ve received three dozen calls and e-mails just this week” to preserve the church, says Councilwoman Gale Brewer. Last month, three community representatives were caught trying to spy on a private church meeting, upsetting Joachim.

First Baptist is not alone in its real-estate tribulations. Across the city, congregations trapped in the financial purgatory of dwindling memberships and rising costs are deciding that church-condos might fall within the bounds of Christ’s wishes. “Developers are literally going from religious institution to religious institution, asking if they can buy their building as a development site,” says Peg Breen, the president of the New York Landmarks Conservancy. And First Baptist is across the street from the Apthorp, which sold last week for over $425 million.

Joachim joined the Baptist congregation in 1976, after graduating from Princeton and law school. “When I joined, the deacons used to grill you a bit. They’d say, ‘Can you recite a Scripture that lets you know that you have eternal life?’ It’s a little easier now.” He’s married to a Jewish woman. (“Not a good idea,” he deadpans.) “Landmarking, it seems to me, is a disaster,” he says. It becomes more expensive and cumbersome to repair the building, much less replace it. Nonetheless, last week the commission rushed the church into emergency landmark review. Joachim is unmoved. “For us, the building is a vehicle for ministry, not an end unto itself. And it may happen that we would change our use of the property.”

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Roberta Gratz's Statement on the Dakota Stable

November 14th, 2006

The landmark quality of any building is not always immediately or easily visible. If the presence of elaborate ornamentation is clear, recognition is easy. In some cases, however, a more nuanced judgment is appropriate. I believe this to be the case in the matter of the Dakota stable. I consider designation a matter of great urgency for reasons that I will explain that go beyond its inherent worthiness as an important architectural, historical, cultural AND social landmark. Sadly, this is one more example of the Landmarks Commission being tested as to how firm we will defend our city’s landmarks.

First, why is this urgent? It is clear today that when property owners recognize the landmark potential of their building, they go for a permit to strip. It is ipso facto recognition of something they seek to destroy before designation occurs. To deny the obvious is to be naïve. As one person testified, “this is simultaneous acknowledgment and rejection of design significance.”

We saw this with P.S. 64, with Lapidus’ Paterson Silk or Crawford Clothes building on 14th St., Cinema I & II on Third Avenue and currently, The Colonial Club on W 72nd and, potentially, City and Suburban Houses. Only designation of the Dakota Stable can send a signal that the Commission will no longer let this strategy work as a designation-ducking device.

Second, cultural vandalism, in the past, has not always been purposeful. Sometimes, it was plain stupidity or misguided economics. But even a defaced landmark does not totally lose its inherent quality. I have argued repeatedly of late that a critical element of our internal standard of deciding whether to consider calendaring a building is erroneous – that is, the degree to which it has been compromised. As Christopher Gray noted in 1987, the LPC ignored pleas for designation of the Dakota stable because its ground floor had been “’severely compromised’ – although a designated landmark a block away, the Belleclaire Hotel, has no original ground floor left.” Misguided interventions, as we see and deal with on a weekly basis, are reversible. In fact, what we do more than anything else each week is approve plans that reverse misguided interventions.

It would be fascinating to survey how many once severely compromised buildings designated as landmarks have since been restored to, if not precise original glory, close to it. These are landmarks in an earlier time we might have lost.

Third. We have heard that the building is too far gone to designate. That is not the case. I don’t know how much original fabric is left of the Dakota Stable and I’m not suggesting we could enforce total recreation. But, if a designated landmark, any new project on the site must come before us. And, indeed, we can require something be incorporated in the design that reflects the architectural, historical, cultural and social importance of the lost landmark. It may be a few elements, the two-tone brick, some arched windows but whatever it is, the memory will not have been erased. The building is not yet stuccoed nor totally effaced. We will face this very challenge with PS 64 and what we do here will affect what we can do there, no matter how much we like to think there are no precedents.

Fourth. I have saved the architectural qualities of this landmark for last because you heard considerable testimony in this regard at the hearing. I have read most of the testimony and was struck by how many people pointed out that the understated nature of the design was a signature of the architect, Bradford Gilbert. “Visionary simplicity,” one witness noted. “The warm orange walls are set off by rich, salmon-colored trim at the windows and cornice…Its simplicity gives it a fresh, even modern, character despite its age,” noted Christopher Gray. “It is not only representative of an important and increasingly rare 19th century building type but a major work of architecture in its own right,” observed Andrew Dolkart. And of its minimal ornamentation, another observed, “the building is a work of color and line rather than applied ornament, in contrast to most buildings of the period, which were often overloaded with ornamentation.” This makes it all the more possible to retain enough of the architecture to be a significant remnant of what once proudly stood.

And fifth. We should not assume these stables were omitted from the historic district designation because of the lack of worthiness. We all know too well how many important buildings were purposely left out of districts all over the city because they were potential big development sites. Together these two stables on what was importantly known as “stable row,” represent a rare remnant of the commercial livery stables so important to the middle class.

Together they help tell the story of the West Side’s development in a way that one alone does not. It is not enough to designate the one and think we have done enough. Preservation is not, and should not, be about the last, the best, the only, etc. The field is way past that kind of thinking.

I wish we would worry about the preservation community’s concerns about the undermining of the landmarks law as we worry about “owner support for historic preservation.” We did the right thing by calendaring this important building. Now let’s do the right thing and designate it an official landmark.

Susan Nial and LPC's Public Meeting

Susan Nial, Upper West Side resident and advocate for preservation and neighborhoods, reflects on November 14th's public meeting:

"The choicest function of government is to protect the weak from the unrighteous acts of those who are strong..." Chief Justice Smyth(1922)

Here is my take on what occurred at the Public Meeting on the landmarking of the Dakota Stables on November 14, 2006. First, the result was unfortunate. By a 3 to 6 vote, by voice not by a roll call, the property was taken “off the calendar”. I assume that the phraseology of the vote is what we call in the law a “term of art”. By voting in this fashion none of the commissioners has to vote against landmarking a building.

The decision in the Dakota Stables matter was telegraphed in the discussion regarding the successful landmarking of the New York Cab Company Stable. In that discussion the commissioners referred often to the fact that the New York Cab Company building was “intact”. Beautiful and Intact. Important and Intact. It was hard to miss the message. However, the discussion of the Dakota Stables was interesting for two reasons. 1. Lots of hand wringing and sadness on the part of commissioners who feigned impotence. 2. The passion, even in the face of opposition, of a few for taking a stand and not allowing the owner and developer to win.

The commissioners recognized that what had been done to the Dakota Stables was despicable and an end run around the landmarking process. Though “legal”, it was described by one as a shameful act.

Perhaps the best overall presentation of what had happened and what would continue to happen unless the Commission took a stand came from Commissioner Roberta Gratz. She called on the Commission to landmark the building to maintain control over the site and to send a message to owners and developers that the process followed by the owner would not be countenanced or rewarded by the Commission. Gratz called on the Chairman and the commission to set up a procedure to stop this kind of end run. She listed as other members did the other landmark quality buildings that had been demolished and destroyed in this manner. She urged the commission to draw a line in the sand and send a message. She predicted that a flurry of these “demolitions by repair” permit actions would be taken by owners who thought that their buildings might be of landmark quality. She also opined that the actions of the owner was proof positive or at least evidence that the building was landmark quality and that the “demolition” was done to avoid and preempt the landmarking process. She opined that the Commission should have done more, could have done more and should in the future do more. Tierney, although he initially said he was interested in setting up some kind of procedure with the building department, argued that it was so complicated and that there could be so many unintended consequences that it would be a long and difficult process to set up such a procedure. When pressed he said—we’re looking into it. The implication in his tone was: “Now shut up about it.” Commissioner Tierney also said that he was still continuing to discuss the matter with the owners and hoped that they would incorporate some of the unique elements of the building in their development.

The Commissioners did engage in a discussion of the need for a new procedure that establishes a presumption that a building that is a certain number of years old is within the jurisdiction of the LPC to the extent that if a permit for demolition or refurbishment of the type that was issued with regard to the Dakota Stables is requested/applied for no permit would be issued without clearing it with the LPC. Some of the Commissioners spoke of it in terms of red flags that would trigger notice to the LPC of such a request. Such notice would give the LPC an opportunity to take some action to protect the building. This was an encouraging discussion but I did not really sense any real enthusiasm from the Chair—rhetorical enthusiasm yes—but no real enthusiasm.

Those of us who believe in preservation need to press the LPC to actually set up such a process. We should call upon Councilman Avella to help us with this issue and provide support to those Commissioners who really are interested in putting this type of process in place between the LPC and the Building Department.

Perhaps one of the most startling assumptions that the commissioners made about the “renovation” plans of the owner was that he was actually going to go through with them. They talked a lot about a “stucco box”. Mr. Tierney offered at the beginning of the meeting a new and improved description of the permits that had been granted by the building department to the owner. As you may recall the permit was described as a permit to remove the cornice and repair the windows. According to Mr. Tierney it had been granted to remove all of the exterior decorations, install new windows and stucco the entire structure. Commissioners worried about “landmarking” a stucco box. They just couldn’t do it they said. Tierney said that there was no reason to believe that the owner would not go forward with his “plans”. Either he is naïve or he is so conflicted he has lost his grasp on reality.

One other Tierneyism that I would like to share. He stated that he was so glad that the community was able to see how open this process had been. He suggested that the attendance at the hearing a few weeks ago was evidence of the “openness” of the process. I guess the fact that you did not find out about the hearing until a lawyer called and that we could not see any of the materials offered to the Commission in opposition, secret meetings with the owner and developer and the fact that the Commission refused to take any action and stop the demolition to protect their jurisdiction are all evidence of the “transparency” of the commission and the openness of the process. I felt like I was watching a sketch on the “Daily Show”.

One of the Commissioners cautioned that neither the owner nor the developer should see this as a win. What a stupid thing to say. After the vote, the representatives of Stern’s office and the developer “high fived” each other. Throwing caution to the wind, I am sure they saw this as a win and as a way to go in other projects.

Susan Nial

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Stables Voting Day at LPC

Voting Day at LPC: Yes to Cab Company, No to Dakota Stables

The votes are in. And the Landmarks Preservation Commission would like us to start with the good news. The bad news is that there really is no good news.

At a public meeting yesterday, the Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) unanimously approved the designation of the former New York Cab Company stable, an 1888-90 Romanesque Revival building designed by C. Abbott French & Company, at the northwest corner of Amsterdam Avenue and 75th Street. The Cab Company - on LANDMARK WEST's designation "wish list" since 1985 - is now the 2,707th landmark on the Upper West Side.

As much as the Cab Company deserves to be a landmark, this victory is soured by the LPC's nearly simultaneous vote to take the former Dakota Stable, another "Stable Row" survivor at Amsterdam and 77th Street, "off the calendar". The measure passed 8-2, despite impassioned pleas from Commissioners Roberta Brandes Gratz and Christopher Moore to make the Dakota Stable a landmark.

What does this mean, to take a building "off the calendar"? Our understanding is that it is a mechanism, devised by the LPC's legal counsel, for withdrawing the Dakota Stable's "calendared" status, which the LPC confers on properties as a preamble to a public designation hearing. Calendaring is supposed to prevent the Department of Buildings (DOB) from issuing alteration or demolition permits on a building while the LPC holds a hearing and considers the building's merits for designation. This only works if the LPC actually calendars the building prior to DOB's issuing permits.

In the case of the Dakota Stable, the LPC waited - for what? permission from the developer? a nod from City Hall? - until late September to calendar the building, over a month after DOB issued the permits that allowed destructive work to the facade. Workers promptly began dismantling the building. Nearly another month went by before the LPC held a public hearing (on October 17). Now, yet another month later, with the building and the public's faith in the integrity of the landmarks process lain in waste, the LPC decides to "take backsies", pretend it never happened, take half a loaf, and move on.

Preservationists in communities across the city are already calling for legislation to give the LPC more power in situations like this (which are all too frequent - this is by no means an isolated incident). If the LPC were empowered to move as quickly and effectively as developers do, perhaps buildings like the Dakota Stables would stand a fighting chance. Yet, in response to past community-driven legislative initiatives, the LPC has complained that such power would be too onorous and impose too heavy a burden on its overextended staff. Apparently, Mayor Bloomberg and his appointed Chair Robert B. Tierney prefer to keep the LPC one step behind the wrecking ball rather than in front of it.

For another first-hand account of yesterday's public meeting, visit the Historic Districts Council's Preservation Perspectives blog at

Monday, November 13, 2006

LPC to Vote on Stables


We have just learned that, tomorrow, Tuesday, November 14, at 12:30 PM, the Landmarks Preservation Commission will take its vote on whether or not the former Dakota Stable and New York Cab Company Stable, survivors of Amsterdam Avenue's 19th-century "Stable Row", deserve to be designated as official NYC Individual Landmarks.

We wish we could have let you know earlier, but this item did not appear on the Commission's official agenda circulated late last week. An email from the Commission, with the 12:30 PM time, arrived this afternoon. The vote will occur at a "public meeting", which means that the public is not permitted to testify, but may witness the Commission's discussion and decision. Your attendance at this meeting is vital. After months of waiting and watching as a demolition crew seemed to seal the fate of the Dakota Stable, we as a community have one last opportunity to show the Commission how strongly we support the preservation of these buildings. Given the late notice, many of you may find it impossible to attend. But if you can adjust your schedule, please join us in urging the Commission to take the action only it can take - to make these de facto landmarks de juro landmarks!

The Landmarks Preservation Commission is located at 1 Centre Street (the Municipal Building), 9th Floor. Remember to bring your photo ID to gain admission.

Wednesday, November 1, 2006

Landmark West! on the Landmarks Crisis

Landmarks Crisis: The following letter is in response to those of you who have reached out to us recently about imminent threats to historic buildings on the Upper West Side. If reading this makes you as frustrated as we are, please mark your calendars for Monday, November 13, at 6:00 PM, when a "Preservation Summit" will be held at the General Society of Mechanics and Tradesmen, 20 W. 44th Street. The Summit is sponsored by the Citizens Emergency Committee to Preserve Preservation, a grassroots campaign to address New York's landmarks crisis. RSVP to

Dear Neighbor:

The former Dakota Stables on West 77th Street and Amsterdam Avenue. The former Colonial Club on West 72nd Street and Broadway. The First Baptist Church on West 79th Street and Broadway.

This reads like a list of the finest preserved landmarks on the Upper West Side. It is - in fact - just the opposite. These buildings are among the most “at-risk” sites in our neighborhood today. Many of you have contacted Landmark West! to find out what can be done to save them. The news is not good.

None of these buildings has official landmark status protecting them from alteration or demolition. In fact, Department of Buildings permits have been issued to change the facades of both the Dakota Stable and the Colonial Club beyond recognition. Plans are in the works to replace both buildings with new structures. And we are saddened to learn that, after decades of attentive stewardship, the First Baptist Church congregation may be weighing the possibility of selling its building for demolition and redevelopment.

Each of these buildings is historically, architecturally and culturally significant in its own unique way (images and basic details are provided below). LW! has had the Dakota Stable and the First Baptist Church on our landmark "wish list" since 1985; for a variety of reasons, but mainly because the day is only 24 hours long, we didn't include the Colonial Club. What these buildings have in common is that they are all just outside the boundaries of the Upper West Side/Central Park West Historic District, one of the largest areas of protected landmarks in the city (with over 2,000 buildings, designated in 1990). For a map of designated landmarks between 59th and 110th Streets, Riverside Park to Central Park, please visit

So why are we not more optimistic that the Dakota Stable, Colonial Club or First Baptist Church can be landmarked and preserved today? For the simple reason that the Landmarks Preservation Commission, the only city agency with the authority to designate and regulate a historic property as a landmark, has shown no real interest in protecting these buildings. It's true that the Commission recently held a public hearing to consider landmarking the Dakota Stable, but only after the owner obtained permits and proceeded to destroy the facade. The Commission then claimed that it was powerless to stop the destruction. To date, they have not voted on whether or not this building will become a landmark. On the Colonial Club, even if the Commission showed a glimmer of interest in holding a hearing, we have no reason to believe or hope that their ultimate response would be any different. And we, for one, refuse to spin our wheels on another advocacy campaign that does nothing but legitimize a sham process.

The future of the First Baptist Church remains to be seen. Many other religious structures around the city have been landmarked and continue to pursue their spiritual and charitable missions - so why not this one? The congregation has not obtained permits to alter or demolish their building. But they have historically resisted landmark designation. And, given the fact that the landmarks process is increasingly owner-driven (not public- or community- or citizen-driven), we are not hopeful that the Landmarks Commission will rush to the defense of this building. They didn't for the West-Park Presbyterian Church (86th Street and Amsterdam Avenue, also just outside of the historic district) when development plans for that site re-surfaced several years ago. Or the recently demolished rowhouses on West End Avenue between 85th and 86th Streets.

We don't plan to lie down and play dead. Neither should you. We are still figuring out what a fresh course of action would entail. New lawsuits, legislation and leadership are all on the table. What we do know is this: Together we must fight to protect New York's Landmarks Law, to make the process work the way it was intended to work, and to restore public faith in the city we love.

Thanks, as always, for your support.


The Former Dakota Stable, 348-354 Amsterdam Avenue (at West 77th Street)
Architect: Bradford Lee Gilbert. Built in two phases, 1891-92 and 1893-94
Permit issued by Department of Buildings to "Remove all exterior projections including cornice and roof parapet" on August 16, 2006. Demolition work began on September 20, 2006. Landmarks Commission calendared building for a public designation hearing on September 26, 2006. Demolition work continued in earnest on October 13, 2006. Landmarks Commission public hearing held on October 17, 2006. They have yet to take a vote on landmark designation.

The Former Colonial Club, 200 West 72nd Street (at Broadway)
Architect: Henry F. Kilburn. Built 1890-94
Permits issued by Department of Buildings to "Construct new aluminum and glass cladding facade on existing building" (November 9, 2005) and "Remove all exterior projections including cornice and molding" (March 14, 2006).

First Baptist Church, 265 West 79th Street (at Broadway)
Architect: George Keister. Built 1890-93.
Future unknown.