Tuesday, November 21, 2006

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 na├»ve 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

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