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 (Carrรจre & 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.